The Civil War’s Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was primarily fought on December 13, 1862. Approximately 200,000 soldiers fought in the battle, as Union General Ambrose Burnside commanded his 120,000 troops in a two-pronged attacked against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s 80,000 troops. Lee’s troops were able to turn back both prongs of the attack, but the Union army and the Confederate army each suffered casualties in the thousands.
One field in particular, which was marked by a long stone wall, had hundreds of Union soldiers who were either dead or wounded lying in it. The carnage was the result of 2,000 Confederate soldiers holding their positions behind the wall and firing into the Union soldiers as they attempted to advance toward it. To make the horrific scene even worse, the Union soldiers who were wounded spent the rest of the day and the entirety of the night crying out for water their fellow comrades couldn’t bring them for fear of being shot themselves.
The cries were so mournful and so persistent that they broke the heart of a nineteen-year-old Confederate sergeant named Richard Kirkland. The next day, December 14, Kirkland went to his field General, Joe Kershaw, and said, “General, I can’t stand this any longer! All day and all night I have heard those poor people calling for water. I’ve come to ask permission to go and give them some.”
General Kershaw admired the young sergeant’s compassion for the enemy, but he couldn’t help but worry about what the Union soldiers on the other side of the field would do if they saw a Confederate soldier moving toward their wounded. Kershaw said, “Sergeant, don’t you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?” “Yes, sir,” Kirkland answered, “but if you will let me, I am willing to try it.” Finally, with one last comment on Kirkland’s noble motives and a request that God would protect the young sergeant, Kershaw agreed to the request.
From the second-story window of his command post, Kershaw watched as Kirkland, carrying several canteens of water, jumped over the wall and headed out into the battlefield. To Kershaw’s amazement, the Union soldiers didn’t fire upon Kirkland even as he arrived at the first wounded Union soldier. Kirkland carefully lifted the soldier’s head, gave him a drink of water, and then adjusted the soldier’s coat for warmth before moving on to the next of the wounded.
It soon became evident to the Union army what Kirkland was doing, and they allowed him to roam the battlefield freely. By the time his job was completed, Kirkland had made several trips back across the wall to get more water to give to the wounded soldiers. His incredible act of compassion will always stand as one of the greatest acts of compassion ever offered in the midst of warfare.
Russell Dennis, Jr., the President of Heritage Baptist College in Franklin, Indiana, has said the following concerning Richard Kirkland’s deed:
As soldiers in the army of the Lord, we see so much need and suffering. If we listen, we can often hear their cries. Like the woman at the well, they seek for water — that Water of Life found only in Jesus Christ our Lord. When we take courage like Richard Kirkland and say, “I can’t stand this!” we can begin to be led by the Holy Spirit to reach a thirsty world.
So, Christian, how about you? Have you jumped over any walls lately to minister to someone who needed your help? If you haven’t, maybe it’s time you did. The wounded are lying here, there, and everywhere all around this world. As Jesus said to His chosen twelve in that same story about the woman at the well, “…Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” Those wounded all need Jesus, the Water of Life. Will you step out from behind your protective wall and take Him to them?