Battle of Fredericksburg
But he, desirous of justifying himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
Richard Rowland Kirkland is a name that should be cherished by every American. On December 14, 1862 he was a sergeant in Company G, 2nd South Carolina. It was approaching noon and his unit was stationed at the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights overlooking Fredericksburg. His unit had helped smash Union attack after Union attack the day before, and now he looked over fields strewn with wounded and dead Union soldiers. He could hear the wounded Union soldiers crying out desperately for water.
Unable to bear the cries any longer, he approached Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw and informed him of what he wanted to do. Kershaw gave him his permission, but told him he was unable to authorize a flag of truce. Kirkland said that was fine and he would simply have to take his chances. Gathering up all the canteens and blankets he could carry, Kirkland slipped over the wall, realizing that without a flag of truce it was quite possible he would be fired upon by Union troops.
Kirkland began to give drinks to Union wounded and blankets to protect them from the cold. Union troops, recognizing what he was doing, did not fire at him. For an hour and a half Kirkland went back and forth tending to the enemy wounded. He did not stop until he had assisted all Union wounded in the Confederate portion of the battlefield. The last Union soldier he assisted he gave his own overcoat. He was repeatedly cheered by both Union and Confederate soldiers. Continue reading
“Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their deaths. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish brigade was beyond description. We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines!”
Confederate Major General George Pickett in a letter to his fiance
A moving video of the Irish Brigade at the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, based on the movie Gods and Generals. It was criminal military malpractice for Burnside, perhaps the most incompetent general in the war, to assault the fortified Confederate positions, but his idiocy does not derogate in the slightest from the extreme heroism of the Union troops who suffered massive casualties while attempting to do the impossible.
The Irish Brigade was one of the units called upon that day to do the impossible. One of the regiments in the Brigade was the 69th New York, the Fighting 69th as they would be designated by Robert E. Lee for their gallant charge at this battle, a unit faithful readers of this blog are quite familiar with. This day their chaplain personally blessed each man in the regiment. They called him Father Thomas Willett. That was as close as they could get to pronouncing his actual name.
Thomas Ouellet, a French Canadian Jesuit, fit perfectly among a regiment of tough Irishmen. Normally mild mannered and kind, he could react sternly to sin or to any injustice done to “his boys”. Abbe Ouellet had been with the regiment from its formation at the beginning of the war. During the battles of the Seven Days of the Peninsular Campaign earlier in 1862, he had barely slept as he tirelessly tended the wounded and gave the Last Rites to the dying. After the battle of Malvern’s Hill, he traversed the battlefield all night with a lantern after the Union army had withdrawn, seeking wounded to help and dying to save. He was captured by Confederates, who, learning he was a priest, treated him with kindness and swiftly released him. Continue reading