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In defense of true tolerance

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, the union soldiers launched a failed assault against a low ridge known as Marye’s Heights. By the end of the attack, 1,000 troops lay dead below the ridge. When the sun rose the next morning, thousands of injured Yankee troops lay stranded in the muddy field between enemy lines. Any union attempts at rescue would have meant death.

“The Yankees were literally piled in our front,” remembered one South Carolinian, “dead and dying together, the living crying, water, water!” 1

A confederate soldier named Richard Kirkland could not ignore the cries of his enemies. He approached his commanding officer and asked if he could take water to them. The confederate general responded, “Kirkland, don’t you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man replied, “I know that, but if you will let me, I am willing to try it.” 2

The officer could not refuse the valiant request. So, he agreed to let Kirkland into the fields below. And there would be no flag of truce. Kirkland decided to take his chances anyway.

Richard borrowed canteens from several friends, steeled himself for adventure, and then jumped over the protective rock wall. As he dashed into no-man’s land, bullets struck the mud around him. When Kirkland reached the nearest enemy solider, he placed the man’s head on his chest and poured water into his parched mouth. He then rolled up the soldier’s knapsack and placed it under the man’s head like a pillow. After he had laid the man’s overcoat over him as a blanket, Kirkland went on to the next soldier.

By then, the union sharpshooters understood that Kirkland was trying to help, and they stopped firing. Some even hailed his bravery. For the next 90 minutes, Kirkland moved from soldier to soldier, giving aid to all within reach. After he ran out of water and helped all he could, Kirkland climbed back over the wall to the Confederate lines.

Because of his actions that morning, Kirkland was known as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” Sadly, he died only nine months later at the Battle of Chickamauga, but his heroic sacrifice in the killing fields of Fredericksburg will not soon be forgotten. His final words were, “I’m done for… save yourselves and please tell my Pa I died right.” 3

Traditional versus modern tolerance

Tolerance used to mean showing kindness to those who have opinions or engage in behavior you disagree with. It meant acknowledging the humanity in everyone and treating them as though they had value, even when they were in the wrong. Now, to be tolerant is to embrace those who look different from you – but only if you agree with their behaviors and opinions – while silencing all who see it another way.

If the story is correct, Richard Kirkland was a shining example of tolerance for those 90 minutes. As a member of the Confederate army from South Carolina, he disagreed with many of the views held by the Union soldiers he helped. He almost certainly despised then President Abraham Lincoln and believed the North was attempting to disrupt his way of life and impose its will on the South, but he helped anyway.

True tolerance these days takes a measure of the same courage. It means facing the mockery and resistance of those who should be on your side. It means expecting potshots from those on the other side who you are trying to help – people who may not trust you and who interpret your compassion as ill will.  The way to convince friends and enemies of your good intent is to persist in tolerant acts.

Can we recognize Richard Kirkland’s humanity, even if he held views that we find abhorrent? Can we celebrate the selfless acts of those fighting on the wrong side? I hope so. We need monuments for the heroes willing to reach out across battle lines. We need them to inspire us to become angels in our own right.

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