December 13th, 1862
Marye's Heights, near Fredericksburg, Virginia
There were so many stars in the sky that night, sparkling like the diamonds in his Mother's necklaces. He wondered if she was wearing them that night, her fingers stroking them in that way she always used to as she read by that soft candle in the window. It would have been snowing back in Massachusetts, the frost glittering over their little house and Johnny was no doubt marvelling at it. He could almost hear the choir singing Ave Maria, ghostly voices that echoed in his mind and tried to soften the tightness in his chest, growing tenser by the minute.
The grass was wet beneath him and pretended it was dew, fresh dew from the summers back home. Pretended he was a child again and he had laid down on the ground to see how high the sky was, how high the birds flew, how many stars there were…
He had reached one hundred and was still counting. He wondered what number he would reach before they started going out.
All across the land, this terrible deadly open space, so wide and yet so stiflingly confined, they were all crying. Crying for their mothers, crying for their fathers, for brothers, for sisters, for wives, for sweethearts, for relief… Only the dead were silent. Or so it seemed.
And he didn't want to look around to find out the truth.
He only wanted to think of home and know that the stars were the same ones Mother and Johnny were seeing.
Johnny – don't ever go to war.
The tightness in his chest grew thicker and the sky became blurred. Cool tears ran down his heated, bloody face and he could feel the dampness blossoming from his shoulder, red on dusty blue. He thought of the first time he had worn this uniform. Mother would remember him that way.
He closed his eyes now and he could see their little house. It was decorated for the approaching holiday – Christmas. Johnny's favourite time of year. And he was sitting at his mother's feet now and asking when Tom was coming home. He was going to miss the songs and the tree, standing proudly in the corner of the room.
'' …soon,'' Mother replied. '' He'll be home soon.''
He smiled at her voice though it was hundreds of miles away, and tried to take one more breath – for her and for Johnny. It caught in his chest and with one last effort, he reached to touch the metal locket he always kept with him in his pocket.
Eyes fluttering open, he looked to the sky and through the darkness slowly clouding his vision, he saw the stars.
They were going out one by one.
He couldn't reach all of them. He was just one man against so very many of them but he worked all night, the grey of his uniform becoming brown with the mud that he crawled in to lift their weary heads and pour water into their parched and bleeding mouths, and never once did their bullets smash into him.
His only regret was that he hadn't come sooner.
There were so many brothers, so many sons, so many fathers, so many husbands and he cried one more tear every time he turned them round to see closed eyes and bloodied wounds. He wasn't any different to any of these men. Only the colour of his uniform divided them.
He wondered how far away from home they all were, lying now on some distant Virginia plain.
Everyone was too far away from home in this cruel war.
And nothing reminded Sergeant Kirkland of that more than one young man, staring at the sky as if counting the stars, and clasping a golden locket in his reddened hand. In this locket was a photograph of a woman and a young boy, both of them smiling. Kirkland could do nothing but bow his head as he saw this and gently close the man's eyes.
He left his jacket with him that night, covering his young, serene face. And as he walked away, through the passages of broken men, he looked at the stars and imagined each one was a life, taken from this awful battle.
He reached one hundred and was still counting.
Confederate Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland came to be known as the 'Angel of Marye's Heights' and was admired for his brave and compassionate actions towards the Union soldiers at that terrible conflict at the Battle of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War. He was only 19 years old at the time of the battle.