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Mercy me: A scene from the film depicts Confederate Richard Kirkland helping relieve the suffering of wounded Yankee troops. The film will debut in Fredericksburg on Saturday.
By MICHAEL ZITZ
"The Angel of Marye's Heights: A Short Film of Courage and Compassion at the Battle of Fredericksburg" will debut Saturday at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
The film, directed by South Carolina filmmaker Clint Ross--and produced by Ross and Spotsylvania Civil War author Michael Aubrecht--tells the moving tale of a legendary act of compassion by 19-year-old Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland.
At Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, Kirkland and his comrades in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment assembled behind the stone wall below Marye's Heights and slaughtered Union troops approaching their position.
During a frigid night and morning, Union wounded lay dying, crying out for help as troops on both sides hunkered down, believing they could do nothing more than listen to the pitiful pleas for help.
The story goes that on the morning of the 14th, Kirkland could bear it no more and crossed the wall, under fire. He is said to have brought water and blankets to enemy troops.
Union soldiers stopped shooting as he carried out his mission of mercy for two hours.
Kirkland was killed less than a year later at the Battle of Chickamauga.
In 1965, a bronze-and-granite memorial to him--sculpted by Felix de Weldon, who also did the Iwo Jima Memorial--was unveiled off Sunken Road, where his act of mercy is said to have taken place.
Aubrecht said people find the story compelling due to "the mere bravery of the situation. It's a vivid tale of massacre interlaced with a compassionate and daring moment.
"There is something universal inside of us that celebrates and agrees with Kirkland's act."
He said that when he gives tours of the site, "As I begin speaking about Kirkland's act, there is a sense of calm that comes over most people. I believe this is because he reminds us that these men were not mindless killing machines--they were human, and in many ways just like us.
"Kirkland's moment of mercy makes the death and destruction a little more tolerable by introducing a conscience."
Some, though, wonder if Kirkland's act of compassion really happened.
"One thing historians agree on is that there simply are no wartime accounts of this," said Kevin Levin, a historian and author in Charlottesville. "The earliest account is an 1880 letter published in the Charleston Courier Carrier. As an historian, it's deeply troubling there are no wartime accounts.
"I think it's impossible to know whether Kirkland engaged in this specific act at Fredericksburg. No doubt these kinds of things happened throughout the war, and it probably happened in Fredericksburg," Levin said.
More interesting, he said, is "this is a reflection of the way a lot of Americans love to see the Civil War. We sort of celebrate our Civil War."
He said some see the war as an example of our "best character" emerging in the most difficult of times.
"I find it kind of troubling," Levin said. "I think what it does is distract Americans from the brutality of the war."
Aubrecht responded: "All I can say at this point is that every historian involved with this project, both in front of and behind the camera, to include the Fredericksburg National Park Service who are the custodians of Kirkland's memory, have found no evidence that disproves this story.
"Is there some speculation in the minor details? Of course there is, but we believe this story to be true. That said, it does read like a Hollywood script, so I understand the skepticism among some people."
Ross, the director, has his own take.
"I spent time at the Fredericksburg National Park Service researching the event, and discovered several legitimate facts and names surrounding Kirkland.
"As I dove deeper into the story, I was lead to names and organizations such as The Daughters of Confederacy--The Kershaw Chapter, Mac Wycoff, Donald Pfanz, Michael Aubrecht These guys had done their research and committed years to the subject of Kirkland and the Civil War.
"This film is not as much about proving the validity of the story as much as it is, well, simply telling the story," Ross said.
Following Saturday's opening, the film will be shown as a permanent part of the exhibit at the Civil War Life Museum downtown.
Aubrecht said The National Civil War Life Foundation, which sponsored the film, plans to use it as the centerpiece of a Richard Kirkland seminar in the future.
Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163