This week marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, VA on April 9, 1865. Peace began to settle over the land that Sunday morning, but national healing would take much, much longer. Perhaps the most poignant summary of the war's triumphs and tragedies was made by Professor James Randall of the University of Illinois many years ago. When the war was over, he observed, "slavery was dead, secession was dead, and 600,000 men were dead." The path to healing, though, was nurtured by the memory of acts of compassion like that of Sergeant Richard Kirkland. Not long ago, I took a detour off of I-95 and wrote the following. 

Along the Sunken Road

Fredericksburg, Virginia

Spent two hours working my way through the parking lot known as I-95 south of Washington, DC. Took the Fredericksburg exit in search of supper and a bed, but the old battlefield here with its high bluff, known as Marye’s Heights, and the Sunken Road at its base have lured me away from the chaos of the afternoon.

Long ago this road left a deep cut through the land, but time has healed the wound. Before me now, the Sunken Road sits in soft dusk, flanked with fresh grass and dandelions. Runners wired with iPods jog alongside a waist-high stone wall, where Confederate soldiers once stood on a frozen morning in December 1862. On that day, this wall bristled with 2,000 rifles, awaiting the Union assault. The men in blue had a clear advantage in numbers, but that advantage was soon lost crossing 600 yards of open ground into a veil of fire. When the smoke cleared, the only thing left was the corpse of a grand army—8,000 men lay killed or wounded.

As the sun set on that red day, Lee’s army held this line, waiting for the next day’s battle, and on the other side, Burnside’s army awaited their orders. Between them lay a vast, murmuring field of agony. Among the dead, bleeding men cried in pain and intense thirst.

For soldiers on both sides, it was a restless night. The groans of the dying and cries for water broke the silence—and the sleep—of the enemy camps. In the morning, though, no one dared go into this “no-man’s-land” to help, for fear of being shot. But Sergeant Richard Kirkland of South Carolina was overcome by these cries and begged his commanding officer that he be allowed to slip over the stone wall to take water to the wounded. His commander finally consented but said that no white flag could be taken—he was on his own.

Sgt. Richard Kirkland 

Sgt. Richard Kirkland 

Kirkland filled all the canteens he could carry and crawled out among his enemies to give them water. As both sides watched, he repeatedly went back, refilling the canteens and returning to wounded men who would come to call him the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.” On that December morning long ago, there were no doubt hundreds of men on both sides whose hearts broke to hear the cries of their friends and their enemies. I expect that prayers were prayed and noble thoughts thought, but as missionary David Livingstone once remarked, “Sympathy is no substitute for action.” Compassion is more than heart. It’s also hands and feet—and maybe life, too.

Sergeant Kirkland went on to fight at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, but just ten months after his mission of mercy, he was killed while leading a charge at Chickamauga. He was 20 years old. On his tombstone is inscribed, “If thine enemy thirsts, give him drink.” These words were spoken by Christ, the Good Samaritan for the world, the One who went to His adversaries, wounded and helpless, and showed matchless mercy. As our Cross-bearer, Jesus even took the place of His dying enemies—so that we could live. This is the cost of grace, the radical rescue work of the Gospel.

The sun is drawing down, and there is little light left to write by. At the top of Marye’s Heights, a bronze general on a pedestal catches the last glint of day. His troops gather around him in perfect formation—row upon row of marble headstones mark the ranks of the unknown dead. The trees are filled with shadows and song, the requiem of the thrush and the mourning dove.

Tim Keesee