Memorial Day and Sacrifice, Part One

Note: The following is the first of two posts in honor of the soldiers who gave their lives for my freedom.

Since Memorial Day was started in 1868 to honor those Union soldiers lost during the Civil War, I’ll focus on three inspirational stories (two in this post and one in a second) from the War Between the States:

First Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson
On July 1, 1863, nineteen year old First Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson was in command of Battery G, 4th US Artillery in the tiny hamlet of Gettysburg, PA. After marching 12 miles that morning, he was ordered to take a defensive position on a hill near the town known as Barlow’s Knoll.

Almost immediately Wilkeson and his troops became engaged in desperate fighting, and the Lt. suffered a severe wound to his right leg. Without concern for himself, he wrapped the upper part of his leg in a make-shift tourniquet, and removed the lower portion of his badly damaged leg himself with a pocket knife. He then was placed back onto his horse and continued to lead his men until losing consciousness.

During the Union retreat of the field, Wilkeson was carried to the rear of a farm building. Making a split second decision and with the Lieutenant’s blessing, his comrades decided to leave him behind—as his wound was considered fatal. It was reported that the Lt.’s last act was to give his only canteen to a retreating comrade.

Ironically, Wilkeson’s father, NY Times reporter Samuel Wilkeson arrived in Gettysburg later in the day to cover the news events. He immediately learned that his son had been badly injured, but was unable to locate Bayard until the next day—when the Lt. was found dead.

Sergeant Richard Kirkland

In December of 1862, twenty-nine year old Richard Kirkland was serving as a sergeant in Company G, 2nd South Carolina during the battle of Fredericksburg (VA). After participating in the devastating defeat of Union forces at Marye’s Heights, Kirkland and his comrades spent the night listening and watching thousands of wounded and dying Union soldiers lay on the open grass below their position.

Because the field was still contested, anything seen moving drew immediate gunfire from both sides. As a result, no one dared enter the middle ground to provide any relief to the sea of blue soldiers in varying states of agony.

The next morning, Kirkland asked permission from his direct superiors to go help some of the soldiers lying in the field. His request was denied multiple times—as commanders felt it was simply suicidal to leave their protective wall.

Unfazed, Sgt. Kirkland walked to his brigade commander’s headquarters, and met personally with General Joseph Kershaw requesting to be allowed to assist the enemy wounded (for those familiar with military/police protocols, jumping to the top of your chain of command for a request after it was denied is simply not a smart career move). After initially refusing as well, the General finally relented, offered his blessings, and granted the sergeant permission to enter the open field.

Kirkland gathered all the canteens he could carry, hopped the protective stone wall, and entered the deadly field to assist the fallen soldiers. The sergeant made numerous return trips into the killing field and worked for more than an hour-and-a-half distributing blankets, water, and comforting the fallen enemy soldiers. For many, Kirkland’s act of compassion was their last experience in this life.

Strangely, Union snipers quickly recognized what he was doing and not one shot was fired at the sergeant during his work. His heroic actions earned Richard Kirkland the nickname: “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”


What was I doing at age 19: worried about term papers and deciding which flavor shake to order at the local Sonic? Would I have been brave enough to jump my chain of command and risk my own life to comfort another?

In dedication to Wilkeson and the deceased soldiers at Marye’s Heights, I am not able to offer any gifts that would equate to even a fraction of what Kirkland provided dying Union soldiers so many years ago, but instead offer a humble prayer of thanks for the sacrifices of veterans who have provided us with so much.


Expat From Hell said...

Powerful stuff here, SD. Thanks for putting this up. The sacrifices of those who lived here before us should live on - they are part of our legacy, part of our heritage. Why we get to choose Sonic shake flavors, still. Good contribution to Memorial Day. Looking forward to reading more, my friend.


Debbie said...

Wow. Stories of American patriotism stir my soul and move me so. Honoring these men is the very least we can do. Thank you.

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for the kind words.