The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 was one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. The Confederate Army had taken positions behind stone walls along Sunken Road at Marye’s Heights. Federal troops made repeated frontal assaults against the wall. In five hours, over 6,300 Union troops lay dead or wounded. As evening approached, snow began to fall and the temperature dropped to below zero. One Union Commander was so tormented by the cries of wounded soldiers for water and mercy, he wrote in his journal, “My ears were filled with cries and groans of the wounded, and the ghastly faces of the dead almost made a wall around me.”
By the afternoon of the following day, a 19-year-old Sergeant, Richard R. Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, could take it no longer. With the permission of his commander, he filled as many canteens as he could, hurdled the wall and ran to the aid of Union soldiers. The Federal lines began to take shots at the Confederate until they saw that his mission was one of mercy. The Union Commander shouted to his troops, “Don’t shoot that man, he’s too brave to die.” For 90 minutes the battlefield was quiet, both sides observing a solemn truce as the good Samaritan ministered to enemy wounded soldiers, which was later characterized in the sculpture “Moment of Mercy” on display at the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The plaque beneath the sculpture describes the character of those dark years: “Soldiers in blue and soldiers in gray repeated this incident many times through the Civil War. This Moment of Mercy sculpture pays homage to them and the uniquely American spirit of aiding those in need.”
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4-5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” In ancient times, mercy could be found in various instances on the battlefield. The scenario would begin with the decisive victory of one army over another. The Commanding Officer of the conquered forces would present himself before the Commander of the victors, kneel, bow his head and present his sword. It was a sign of complete surrender. In many instances, but not all, the victorious commander would show mercy, allowing him to live. In the best cases, the victor would allow the vanquished to return to their homes and families with the promise to never take up arms again. Such mercy was one of the basic tenets of chivalry.
It is this understanding of mercy that informs the Christian tradition. God is victorious over sin and death. We, recognizing that living our life for our own glory is an act of rebellion, surrender to Christ. In our surrender, God is merciful and makes us alive. This gift motivates us, in turn, to show mercy to all whom we meet. Are you wounded? Christ is hurtling the walls of sin and death to bring to you the water of life. Are you in a state of rebellion? God is merciful. Surrender to the King of kings and let Christ make you alive.