Lot 92    

Civil War Diaries and Archive of Alexander S. Paxton, Co. I, Virginia 4th Infantry, Liberty Hall Volunteers
6/23/2011 - American History, Including the Civil War
AMs, 6 diaries, 10 photos, 6 related items, plus 7 ALsS from Tapscott family in California, 1926-1959.

Of all the units raised in colleges for military service during the Civil War -- the Harvard Regiment, the Mississippi Grays -- none amassed a more distinguished record than the Liberty Hall Volunteers, Co. I of the 4th Virginia Infantry. Raised at Washington College and assigned to the famed brigade led by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the Volunteers took part in nearly every major engagement in Virginia from the opening salvos of the early summer 1861 through the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. One of the unit’s original enlistees, Alexander S. Paxton, left behind this rich collection of diaries and artifacts documenting his experiences in the war, reflecting both his keen observational instincts and the strength of his education.

The heart of the Paxton collection consists of six diaries kept while a member of the 4th Virginia Infantry. The first begins with the sort of elaborate title that a college student might have thought up: 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. This fascinating 101pp account details the early history of raising of the Liberty Hall Volunteers from among the student body at Washington College during the first days that the peace & safety of our homes in the Old Dominion were threatened by the warlike preparations of Old Abe Lincoln up through Sept. 2, 1861. Beyond giving an enervating account of the high emotions coursing through the south during the opening stages of the Civil War, the account (possibly written later, though probably during the war), includes important and detailed accounts of the two battles in which Stonewall Jackson first distinguished himself. At the otherwise little remembered Battle of Hainsville on July 2, 1861, Paxton witnessed the peculiar combination of courage and skills that became Stonewall’s trademark when the 4th Virginia narrowly avoided being outflanked by their numerically superior opponent. In what would become a familiar refrain, Paxton wrote: Owing to the skill of our Gen. we escaped the trap laid for us by the wily Yankee Gen. They plainly showed that they relied on their numbers & aimed to flank us & then get the advantage, & not come out boldly & attack us in an open field in a fair fight... Gen Jackson understood their intention & not wishing to sacrifice so many lives, ordered us to fall back, so we resumed our march towards Martinsburg. In the engagement at Hainsville, we had only about 400 of the advance regiment engaged, whilst they had about 2500. W, strange to say, had only 3 killed & about 10 wounded, whilst they lost at the lowest 150 killed & many wounded. This seems unreasonable, yet 'tis fact.... During the engagement at Hainsville, Gen. Jackson exhibited the greatest bravery & coolness. 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. He is certainly a brave man & worthy to be a namesake of ‘Old Hickory’.

Jackson earned the nickname Stonewall for his tactical brilliance at the First Battle of Bull Run, where the actions of the regiments under his command turned a hotly contested battle in an all-out rout. Written from the perspective of a still-green, but eminently loyal private, Paxton’s account offers a glimpse into the minds of Jackson’s soldiers as they were asked to do the unthinkable. Tho’ we were about to engage in mortal combat with our enemy, he wrote, & that upon the Sabbath, we were acting only on the defensive. The violation of that holy day rests upon the heads of that heaven-forsaken band, & the precious blood that crimsoned the field of the old Dominion on that day, all cries for vengeance upon the leaders of their myrmidon hosts... The 4th were ordered to prepare for a charge, and to lie down on the field to avoid artillery fire: at the time, the line of battle where they were fighting extended off towards our right about a mile & a half. But the din of the battle rose so high near us that couldn’t hear the firing elsewhere, & much less could we see them. Our regiment had the most dangerous position on the field. We were exposed to the enemy’s fire & had to remain inactive so long. 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, producing anything but pleasant sensation... [two hours pinned down] 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”... Finally they are ordered to charge: believe me it was a relief for our boys to get up from that dreadful position & with a loud shout of defiance dash forward in the deadly charge. One dashing on in the charge feels more like a demon, than a human being, for reason no longer controls him & a mad enthusiasm carries him on. A burning thirst for the life blood of the foe, such as never felt before, then seizes upon him. Onward we dashed.... His account goes on at length to describe the scene as they slammed into the elite New York Zouaves, a second charge, and more. Then when they saw the flower of their army in slight, the enemy one & all fled, both their bodies of reserve & those who were attempting to rally. Our troops pursued them about two miles, could only keep in sight of them, for fear seemed to give them wings, judging from the way they “get up and traveled.”

The remaining volumes offer similarly outstanding fare, detailing Jackson’s daring and almost reckless courage time after time, battle by battle, from September 1861 up until Paxton was wounded (and Jackson killed in action) at Chancellorsville in May 1863. Heated and graced with a college student’s embellishments, Paxton’s language opens an interesting window into the mind of an ideologically motivated southerner and one can chart the profound impact that Jackson’s leadership and the success of southern arms had on a common soldier’s morale. Every account of a skirmish or battle throws light on the mindset of the Stonewall Brigade and their rising sense of superiority, if not invincibility. Paxton’s diary includes fine descriptions of the Battle of Balls Bluff in October 1861, and the back and forth wandering in western Virginia during the winter 1861, and of the small scale skirmishing and sharpshooting that helped raise their spirits and expectations: Many of the troops who had improved guns stole out of the lines & went over to the river bank to get a shot at the Yankees who were standing on picket on an opposite hill. Nothing is so exciting as to get a shot at a Yankee. How strange that the better & kinder feelings of out natures should be thus changed! Sometimes I almost feel like asking why is all this? But then the truth flashes upon me in all its dread reality, That we are engaged in a war with a mad & fanatical people who would fain subdue out fair land, desolate our fertile fields, desecrate our altars, pollute our firesides & subject our fair daughters to ignominy & shame! As our fathers fought the first was of the independence of the North & S so now we are fighting the battle of the independence of the glorious south. At the same time, Paxton rued the terror inflicted by the Yankees on his fellow Virginians: Frenchtown a little village, a few weeks ago all flourishing & full of life is now in ashes by the torch of the miserable Yankee. To many of these they set fire, whilst the inmates were yet in them, they escaping only with their lives. The shot an poor old man down in his door & buried his house over his head. These & such other deeds they did, all of which are sufficient to make humanity cry out “for shame!” Tis enough to make every man in the South rush into the ranks of war from hoary age to blooming youth, & drive back the cruel invader. This is naught by extermination. They can’t subdue us, the know it, & in revenge the spirit of the nether world bids them thus set the torch to our homes, desolate our firesides, & turn our fair women & helpless children out to breast the midwinter storm. The charred walls & lonely chimneys that now meet the eye on that desolated road will stand as sullen monuments to tell the people of the south the true character of their foe & to tell the world the cruelty of the northern fanatics.

At the head of the rising spirit was Stonewall Jackson, who seemed to sustain the troops even when under hardship. After a hard march in the summer of 1862, unable to travel by railroad, Paxton wrote with tongue in cheek, Twould not have done for the ‘Stone Wall’ to have rode all the way from R[ichmond]; that would have spoiled us. The high point of Paxton’s admiration for Stonewall, perhaps came during the Battle of Cedar Run on Aug. 11, 1862, when the great tactician cemented his reputation. After an initial federal assault pushed the Confederate forces to the brink, Jackson personally rallied his men, reformed his lines, and counterattacked, taking the day. Paxton’s account of this famous incident reveals the impact on the men in the ranks: We were aroused before daylight by the fire of the pickets... At first 'twas only a few random shots but when a volley broke upon our ears, every man jumped up. Our picket lines only extended about 1 1/2 miles in that direction & the Yankee calvary made a dash on them, but were repulsed. Of course we thought the whole Yankee army might be making a flank movement on us & expected to be into it hot & heavy by daylight... Having marched about 7 miles came on Yankee pickets. They were in position, had their batteries planted & were awaiting to be attacked, altho’ they came down here to overrun our country. They had chosen a good position. About 4 PM the fight commenced. Ewell was on our right & Jackson’s old division fought on center & left... We came upon the Yankees, they in a field & we in the woods. We fired a volley into them & they fell back to a piece of woods. We advanced firing & they still fell back. Our Reg’t having got before the others of the brigade was halted & moved further over to the right, so as to form on line, then we all moved up on line. The enemy then opened fire on us from behind fences on edge of woods. They also succeeded to some extent in flanking our left... Paxton describes the back and forth surge of fighting across a wheat field before the critical moment: The enemy surrounded the 2nd Brigade, the had to cut their way out. Twas now about dark & the enemy were falling back at all points. We were pursuing them slowly. At this moment, General Jackson rode along the lines, & on reaching the old brigade of his choice, he rode forward before us with shouts that made that blood stained field quake. The 1st brig. Moved on after their Gen. The enemy had the cover of the woods to fall back under, so we had to sop the pursuit. We slept on the battle field...

Beyond battle content, Paxton’s diary is a tremendous record of the impact of the war on the citizens. At several points, he complains about the locals and their professed love for the poor soldiers, while charging exorbitant prices for everything: some of these would-be aristocrats seem to look down with more contempt on a private soldier than on a negro, on men brave, noble & true to their old country, on men some of whom have been raised in greater luxury & refinement than they, And who have sacrificed their home interests, severed the tenderest ties to come & fight even for these pitiful creatures who scorn to speak to them. Later, regarding Martinsburg, This is a strong union place, as strong as can be. Here the women give us fits with their tongues. The union feeling is chiefly with the lower classes. All the secessionists are & at least respectable, while all the others are not. Just before the Battle of Fredericksburg, he recorded a not uncommon incident: We saw a La. soldier shot just before we came into camp. He broke into a house, insulted some ladies, & threatened to shoot an officer who ordered him out. The Louisianans are good at fighting the Yankees, but they are also noted for robbing & ill treating our own men...

Paxton was apparently (probably inadvertently) AWOL during Second Bull Run and was on the sick list at Antietam, but had a keen view of Fredericksburg, though not engaged until Dec. 12: Yesterday they shelled the town burning many of the houses. This morning as we came up the R. Road we saw many women & little children driven from their homes & seeking refuge from the coming storm that then lowered darkly over their birthplaces... On Dec. 13, Paxton describes moving forward from their reserve position: We had been under shells for several hours, the enemy shelling the woods. If anything is calculated to confuse troops, tis to be shelled in the woods. The awful crashing thro the trees & the falling of broken limbs makes a dreadful noise. Our men had cut out a military road in the woods & fanned on this. When our reserve line got to this road the enemy had been driven back about three qurs of a mile. Our brigade was marched along this road toward our right. Once we saw a good many of our troops falling back thro the woods, but they were supported by Gregg’s S.C. brigade.... The fighting and shelling continued until dark: We could see the distant camp fires of the foe, & hear the cries & groans of the wounded. Some would cry “Help!” “Take me of boys!” “Water, one drop of water!”... On the 14th, a flag of truce went up, allegedly to recover the body of Gen. Hooker, The flag returned & again the shots commenced. The armies of both sides stood up & confronted each other, while the flag of truce was over. The enemy had a fine position should we advance. They were not more than 600 yards from us. Had several batteries planted there & now & then when our men would show themselves too plainly, they would give us a discharge of canister... When the engagement broke off, Paxton discovered an old college friend had died, along with many of the Rockbridge Artillery of his brigade.

During the winter of 1862-1863, Paxton was sent home to round up deserters, finding one hiding in a trundle bed, his gun cached beneath a loose plank in the floor, but he rejoined the 4th Virginia for the Battle of Chancellorsville. Paxton’s diary recording the wind up to the battle from April 30 and May 1, followed by a long and detailed account of Chancellorsville itself. After completing a charge and being ordered to fall back, Paxton described his own wounding Just as I fired my last shot I was shot through the right leg about 2 inches above the knee, dropped my gun and as turned to go back, another struck my left elbow only bruising it... While at home recuperating, he learned that his leader, Jackson, had been killed.

After returning to his regiment on October 8, 1863, Paxton includes fine accounts of the Mine Run Campaign and a remarkable account of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Campaigns, during which he came face to face with a squad of Yankee prisoners being sent to the rear, calling them mean looking men, the off scourings of the earth. The 4th Virginia was located at the focal point of the Union assault at the Mule Shoe on May 12: The 2nd Brig of our division (not noted in the annals of war for its fighting qualities) soon gave away in confusion. Through this gap the blue tide of Yankees poured like a headlong stream. In front of our Brigade they met with a warming reception & were compelled to halt. Yet having come thro’ the gap in our lines they flanked & almost surrounded our Brig. Twas a terrible time, and the breath of battle never came better on the brows of the old Brig. Than on that bloody morning. But she was surrounded & overpowered by numbers. Yet she fought noble in her dying hour! She fought them back from traverse to traverse along the line of works. The whole division now gave away & fell back, before fearful odds. Gen Walked was wounded in the left arm. Very many of our men were captured. The assault along the whole line was terrific & the Yankees were slain like hogs in front of our line. The fighting the whole day was of the most desperate character. The enemy were partly intoxicated & thus frenzied they charged our lines. Some of our prisoners who got away from the say they bayoneted some of our wounded men & even some of those who surrendered. Gen. Johnston was wounded & captured. The 2nd Brigade acted in a most shameful manner! It disgraced itself! It was the cause of the disaster to the whole division... His diary continues through Cold Harbor and Petersburg and onto the Shendandoah Valley under Jubal Early, but slows down with a gap from Oct. 6, 1864, through March 1865. At this late stage, the diary resumes with a fine, though self-evidently rushed account of the fall of Petersburg and the flight to Appomattox. On Sunday morning the 2nd at 3 o’clock they charged our works in 3 places... they broke in at all 3 places. Gen Walker soon ran them out, Grimes did not dislodge them and they dashed a column across... & rushed it across to the S side r. road & the Appomattox R came near capturing all Gen Lee’s papers at his Hd Qurs, Captured good many of Heth’s men, some of his men did not fight well...” On April 18: “Cloudy this morning. Gloomy as the aspect of the time is. The very atmosphere breathes of bad news. Gen Lee surrendered to Grant on the 10th with 8,000 men! “And Freedom shrieked as Lee’s Army fell.” The Yankees completely surrounded & many shout Appomattox C.H. Paxton transcribed Lee’s General Order No. 9 in its entirety, as it was received at the time.

The collection contains a handful of other items relating to Paxton, including ten photographs (cabinet card of James Lilley Templeton; mounted print of Col. James M. Lilley (ca.1905); later print of Confederate officer (J.E.B. Stuart?); two of Paxton, two mounted portraits of Paxton relatives; two larger mounted photos James Robert Trapscott in fraternal uniform; souvenir image of Robert E. Lee on horseback; 1/9 plate ambrotype of unidentified man, split case); two issues of the Confederate Veteran (1904, 1914), the second with an obituary for Col. John. D. Lilley; a copy of Beautiful Thornrose, Memorial Edition (Staunton, Va., 1921), a promotional book for a cemetery in Staunton, highlighting its dead Confederates; and some Lilley family genealogical notes (undated). The war-related items are worthy of special note, consisting of a traveling chess set (including most pieces) that is labeled in contemporary hand, C.C. Paxton’s chess set captured in Civil War in deserted Yankee camp; and eight Minnie balls, From Carter’s Farm Battlefield where Gen. R.D. Lilley lost right arm.

An extraordinary find and supremely important record of the Liberty Hall Volunteers and the Stonewall Brigade, this exceptional set of diaries is noteworthy for the exceptional quality of the writing, its completeness, and rather remarkable reflection of the mind of a Confederate soldier. Observant and intelligent, it records some of the seminal moments in the career of that brigade, revealing the impact of Jackson’s heroism at First Bull Run and Cedar Run in particular, and stirring accounts of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and many more. Two diaries are homemade, stitching salvaged paper into boards; two early diaries are small (3.5 x 5 in.) and thin (34pp and 20pp), but one includes a faint pencil sketch of the Battlefield at Bull Run; the last is also handmade with much smudging of pencil, though all legible.

Acquired from the Paxton Family Estate

Two diaries are homemade, stitching salvaged paper into boards; two early diaries are small (3.5 x 5 in.) and thin (34pp and 20pp), but one includes a faint pencil sketch of the Battlefield at Bull Run; the last is also handmade with much smudging of pencil, though all legible.
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