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December 14, 2009 12:36 am




Richard Kirkland received his due yesterday on the battlefield where the Confederate sergeant gained his postwar sobriquet, "the Angel of Marye's Heights."

Peter S. Carmichael, the historian delivering the keynote remarks on the battle's 147th anniversary, noted the oft-told tale of Kirkland's compassion toward Union wounded.

The South Carolinian carried water to fallen enemy soldiers, clambering over the stone wall from behind which Confederates had mowed down thou-sands of Yankees on Dec. 13, 1862.

A bronze monument to Kirkland stands a few hundred yards from where Carmichael spoke at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.

But Carmichael, a former seasonal historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park who is now on the faculty at West Virginia University, wasn't buying any rosy-tinted view of war.

When Kirkland's story is cited as proof of American character, he said, "this is ego and hubris talking--and it encourages collective amnesia, by turning the battlefield into a healing ground."

The truth is not so neat, Carmichael said.

"When we imagine our Civil War as an expression of Americanism, we tend to forget about the savage destruction of the town of Fredericksburg by the Union army," he said. "We tend to forget the spirit of revenge that animated Lee's Army of Northern Virginia as they slaughtered Union soldiers as they attacked Marye's Heights."

As word of the battle's casualties filtered home, Americans on both sides were keenly aware of Fredericksburg's terrible human toll, Carmichael noted.

Today, aerial drones and robotic weapons, plus the remote nature of U.S. battlefields abroad, help shield Americans from the horrors of warfare, he said.

"Every war, no matter how vicious and brutal the enemy might be, demands our awareness, our knowledge of what our troops are enduring on the front, or we lose our political check on how our nation wages war," Carmichael said.

So, too, he said, people can lose sight of what the Kirkland monument expresses: "the great universal riddle of being a soldier."

He suggested that people need to "honestly recognize" war's brutality, as well as humans' capacity--sometimes in the very same person--for both the empathy and the cruelty of the nation's bloodiest conflict.

"When we acknowledge the conflicted feelings that Americans felt in the wake of Fredericksburg, we can penetrate the romantic haze of the past," Carmichael said.

"We can see that noble gestures toward the enemy never overturned the oath of violence that all Civil War soldiers took upon their enlistment."

Yesterday's Battle of Fredericksburg commemoration ended with wreath-layings by Civil War heritage groups and the playing of taps by Sons of Confederate Veterans member Roy Perry.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians' Spotsylvania division paid tribute to Irish Brigade commander Thomas F. Meagher, whose Tiffany & Co. sword is now on temporary display at the visitor center.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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