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The legends of history tell a bigger story

 Heroic deeds are attributed to Richard Kirkland in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
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Date published: 12/30/2012

Must we really determine whether Sgt. Richard Kirkland did all, some, or none of the heroic deeds credited to him in the Battle of Fredericksburg ["Did war produce 'Angel', Dec. 13]?

I am all for pursuing historical fact in almost every circumstance. But sometimes it seems that in doing so we are missing the larger purpose of stories and legends.

The purpose of telling a story is to impart meaning to those on the receiving end. The story (or legend) of Sgt. Kirkland does this. It speaks to our finest instincts even in times of terrible brutality.

Take, Steven Spielberg's "Amistad." There were aspects to his telling of the story that were not historically accurate. But it was the overall meaning that was most important. His insignificant tweaks only made the story more manageable and palatable to those whom he wished would derive purpose and understanding from the events related. It is not necessary to dissect every aspect of any story to understand the meaning.

Another excellent movie, Tim Burton's "Big Fish," is the story of a young man convinced that his father's embellished life stories are meritless as they lack a level of accuracy. Only on his father's deathbed, as the son goes through his father's belongings and meets the people whose lives were affected, does he realize that his father's stories were all true in a manner of speaking. They were simply told in a way to make them more meaningful to his son rather than, in his father's words "having all of the facts but none of the flavor."

As a child in New York City I was taught of Sgt. Kirkland in middle school history. I was told stories about Blue and Gray scouts trading sips of coffee and puffs of tobacco midstream between battle lines, and of German and French artillery fire quieted by the presence of a dog in "No Man's Land."

I don't need to know if these stories are true or not. They are true to me because they have meaning that does no harm to history or persons involved. They inspire us to believe that we can all be a bit better than the circumstances that have compelled us to harm each other. Isn't that good enough? Shouldn't it be?

William Dowling

Locust Grove