This was the eleventh consecutive year a wreath with the words "18th Massachusetts Infantry" emblazoned in white lettering on a blue and red banner was offered in tribute to a small Union regiment, which was part of Burnside's last sacrificial offering to the killing zone known as Marye's Heights. The rain fell hard enough that it forced observances inside the National Park Service headquarters building for only the second time in twelve years and cut the numbers who came to remember this day down to fifty and the wreaths presented by various organizations to five.
Russell Smith, Superintendent of the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park, relayed the story of how Brig. Gen. Thomas Meagher's sword came to be on temporary display at the Park Headquarters. Fredericksburg Councilman Matt Kelly traveled to Ireland, where the sword was thought to be on display in the Waterford Museum of Treasures. When the Tiffany manufactured sword failed to turn up there, further investigation led him to a place less than sixty miles from home, the Irish Embassy in Washington.
Twelve years and twelve keynote speakers, some of whom have been worse than others. According to his wife, who I spoke to afterward, Dr. Peter Carmichael, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War Studies at the University of West Virginia, was worried about his speech. He needn't have worried. Very simply, it was the most eloquent and impassioned of all those I've listened to over the years at Fredericksburg.
"The story of Sgt. Richard Kirkland doesn't cause unease. The fact that he jumped over a wall" and brought water to dying Union soldiers "doesn't cause unease." Even the fact that he is labeled as the Angel of Marye's Heights doesn't cause Carmichael unease. But he does grow uneasy when "Kirkland is trotted out" as a symbol of "brotherhood among soldiers." The Kirkland story fits nicely into our image of the American soldier. It is an "expression of America," that "Americans rise above" the savagery of war, that we are "somehow exempt from barbarous acts." It is "ego and hubris" for Americans to think we as a people didn't and don't commit atrocities in times of war and is clearly "an expression of Americanism."
The Angel of Marye's Heights allows us to "forget the destruction of the city of Fredericksburg," allows us to "forget the slaughter of Federal troops." We forget that, shielded behind a stone wall, "Confederates tried to kill as many Union soldiers as possible, even those who tried to retreat" to the safety of city. Throughout the war "a blood lust consumed both sides. War transformed men until they, themselves, no longer recognized their own self."
Carmichael used the story of Charles Bowen of the 12th U.S. Infantry to frame his speech. Bowen who was "pinned to the ground" by Confederate musket fire and "desperate for safety," piled the bodies of the dead around him." Bowen stared into the open eyes of one man for hours before, at the risk of drawing fire, he pushed the body over "so the eyes wouldn't look back at me." Bowen would later make his way back to the safety of the Union lines unharmed.
War weariness is not only the thing that marks Bowen's later correspondence home, there's also an express desire to seek revenge against the politicians he holds responsible for orchestrating the conflict. There are passages in which he describes friendly exchanges between Union and Confederate troops, but then notes, as so many others did in their own letters, that both sides were "soon back at each other's throats." There are "countless" other letters in which Bowen confides he "took great pleasure in killing the enemy," adding "it did him good to kill the enemy." "Bowen was a realist." He "expressed the contradictions of war." Yet he "never lost his abhorrence of war."
Carmichael contrasted this to the current wars being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq that are becoming increasingly robotic, where, in large part, killing is done at long range and the participants are increasingly insulated from that killing. In many respects the Kirkland monument is insulation, not only for the men who fought there, but for generations that have followed. While Kirkland's actions were a "noble gesture toward the enemy," a study of the Civil War finds few, if any, similar examples of tempered mercy. Both sides clearly demonstrated overt hostility toward the other, both sides clearly demonstrated the ability to act with savagery, to sweep their bloodied scythes endlessly through four years of war.
Charles Bowen warned his family that "if he managed to get home he would not be the same man." His, at that time, was a life was "filled with confusion and doubt," yet, overriding all was, almost inconceivably, "sympathy for the enemy."
Books by Peter Carmichael: