Several members of an Indiana-based Civil War re-enactment group formed decades ago in tribute to the soldier's original regiment purchased the leather-bound diaries of Alexander Sterrett Paxton and related items for $21,150 and delivered them and other artifacts to the Lexington school's Leyburn Library.
When the war broke out in April 1861, Paxton and other students at what was then Washington College enlisted with the Liberty Hall Volunteers, becoming part of the 4th Virginia Infantry serving under Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
Paxton's narratives give a detailed look into the life of a soldier over the span of the entire war, employing what special collections librarian Vaughn Stanley called "sprightly writing" that reflected his experiences and opinions about wartime events.
"We don't know what his rank was but he was basically a common soldier," Stanley said. "But he was very well educated, very literate and made very insightful observations about what was going on."
The Liberty Hall Volunteers participated in nearly every skirmish on Virginia soil during the war, through Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Paxton's admiration for Jackson was obvious in his battlefield accounts.
"Whilst we were there Gen. Jackson rode up and down the line as cool & calm as if on an evening parade, tho' the missiles of destruction flew around him as thick as hail," Paxton wrote in July 1861 during the Battle of First Bull Run (also known as the Battle of First Manassas), the first major land confrontation between Union and Confederate troops. "Now & then he would exclaim 'Alls well' & remarked 'this night we will drive them across the Potomac.'"
Paxton also detailed how "the cannon balls from the enemy's guns would whiz just a few feet above our bodies," and his surprise at "how strange that the better & kinder feelings of our natures should be thus changed" when shooting at the enemy.
His writings continued through campaigns at Cold Harbor, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley under Gen. Jubal Early. A five-month gap in the narrative picks up again in March 1865 with an account of Petersburg's fall and the troops' subsequent 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..."
And, an April 1865 entry: "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."
A Washington and Lee alumni directory from 1881 showed that Paxton later worked as a teacher in Rockingham and Augusta counties, Stanley said. Paxton later served as principal of Female Academy in Stanford, Ky.
The university plans to display Paxton's diaries, photographs, a small chess set, and other artifacts to give visitors a chance to learn more about the Liberty Hall Volunteers, named after Liberty Hall Academy, a precursor to Washington College. The college was renamed Washington and Lee in 1870 after Lee's death.
One of the diaries' donors, C.J. Roberts of Tampa, Fla., is a member of the 4th Virginia Infantry Association, an Indianapolis-based group founded in 1971 that portrays Paxton's unit in Civil War re-enactments. He said nine members of the modern-day unit, along with two anonymous donors, scrambled to assemble the funds to top two other bidders at a June auction.
Group members traveling to Virginia last month for the 150th anniversary re-enactment of Bull Run personally delivered the diaries to Washington and Lee, which Roberts says is their rightful home.
"They're going to add greatly to the body of knowledge of this organization and these young men who left college and participated in the defining event of our nation's history," said Roberts, a nearly 30-year-member of the group.