Confederate soldier’s diaries find a home at Washington and Lee University
By Daniel de Vise,
He sat calmly on his horse & wrote a dispatch to Gen. Johnston, whilst the balls were flying thick around him, knocking up the dust, cutting down leaves from the trees &c.
They are the words of Alexander Sterrett Paxton, a Virginia college student who joined the Confederate infantry and served in Jackson’s storied Stonewall Brigade.
Paxton’s diaries — six of them, chronicling the conflict from beginning to end — surfaced at auction this summer. A group of donors raised the funds to purchase them for Washington and Lee University, where Paxton was a senior when the war erupted. Paxton marched off to fight with about 100 classmates, known to posterity as the Liberty Hall Volunteers.
The diaries, previously unknown, add a new and articulate voice to the corpus of first-hand accounts of the war. They are a welcome addition to the Special Collections library at Washington and Lee, a quintessentially Virginian university, where Robert E. Lee once served as president.
“We just knew that this was where these diaries needed to be,” said David Klinestiver, an Indianapolis attorney and Civil War enthusiast who belongs to a group that reenacts battles fought by the Liberty Hall Volunteers.
Paxton grew up near Lexington and enrolled at the institution then known as Washington College, after George Washington, a key early donor. When Virginia seceded, students raised a Confederate flag. That drew a protest from President George Junkin, a Union loyalist. Faculty sided with the students, and Junkin fled.
These were men “of the age that they would have been caught up in the furor and the rage of what was going on around them,” said C.J. Roberts, a historian and fellow Civil War reenactor.
Many of the students knew Jackson personally: He was a fellow Lexingtonian and had held a teaching post at the neighboring Virginia Military Institute. So, in June 1861, they left in wagons and stagecoaches to meet up with the general in Winchester.
Paxton began his account with this legend: Devoted to a brief history of the adventures, movements &c of the ‘Liberty Hall Volunteers’ during the war of Southern Independence & of resistance to Northern Despotism.
He wrote that he had joined the conflict because the peace & safety of our homes in the Old Dominion were threatened by the warlike preparations of Old Abe Lincoln.
A month later, the young infantryman found himself in the First Battle of Bull Run, on the battlefield where Jackson earned his nickname.
He wrote: The shells would burst over & around us scattering their fragments far & wide. And as we lay there prostrated on the ground the cannon balls from the enemy’s guns would whiz just a few feet above our bodies, strike in front of our line & bounce over us, whilst the minie balls went singing by our ears & between our bodies.
Paxton penciled a sketch of the battlefield. And he gave this account of Jackson:
Whilst we were there Gen Jackson rode up & down the line as cool & calm as if on an evening parade, tho’ the missiles of destruction flew around him as thick as hail. Now & then he would exclaim “Alls well,” & remarked “This night we will drive them across the Potomac.”
As the conflict wore on, Paxton remarked on the hardening of his own nature: Nothing is so exciting as to get a shot at a Yankee. How strange that the better & kinder feelings of our natures should be thus changed!
In May 1863, he described being wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville: Just as I fired my last shot, I was shot through the right leg about two inches above the knee.
Paxton went home to recuperate. He returned that fall and fought with the Confederates till Lee’s surrender in April 1865, when he observed, The very atmosphere breathes of bad news.
The diaries remained in private hands until June, when Paxton’s descendants put them up for auction. The Washington and Lee library lacked the funds to raise the purchase price, so Roberts and Klinestiver organized a group of 11 donors, including several alumni. They bought the diaries for about $21,000 on June 23 and delivered them to the Lexington campus July 22.
“Our alumni rose to the occasion rather marvelously,” said Vaughan Stanley, special collections librarian at the university. He also praised the reenactors who contributed.
Some of the six volumes are store-bought pocket journals. Later on, as supplies dwindled, Paxton resorted to binding pages by hand, using scraps of discarded military forms and bits of leather and string.
Early entries are lengthy and detailed. Later entries are fewer and plainer, some of them “clearly written in haste,” Klinestiver said.
Paxton returned home after the war. He eventually became principal of a girl’s school in Kentucky and wrote a long-forgotten memoir of antebellum memories. He was, by all accounts, a Confederate patriot to the end.