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Washington and Lee Receives Gift of Alumnus’ Civil War Diaries

Six Civil War diaries written by a Confederate soldier and providing a first-hand account of the war in Virginia are now part of Special Collections at Washington and Lee University’s Leyburn Library, the result of a multi-donor gift to the University.

Archivists and researchers would be delighted enough over this newly discovered set of diaries.  What lifts this collection into a special category for Washington and Lee, however, is the identity of the diaries’ author: Alexander Sterrett Paxton, an alumnus who belonged to the famed Liberty Hall Volunteers, a company of Confederate infantry made up of Washington and Lee students.

“I feel privileged to receive this gift,” said Vaughan Stanley, Special Collections librarian at W&L. “It’s one of the most significant gifts we’ve gotten in my 19 years here.”

“The diaries relate so well to Lexington and to Washington and Lee that it seemed very appropriate for them to have a permanent home in Special Collections,” said one of the 11 donors, a W&L alumnus who wishes to remain anonymous. “It was a pleasure to help make that happen.”

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Alexander Paxton and other students at Washington College (as it was then called) enlisted in the Liberty Hall Volunteers. Their captain was James Jones White, a professor of Greek and Latin at the school, and their name referred to Liberty Hall Academy, a predecessor to Washington College, and to a military unit with the same name that had fought in the Revolutionary War. The students became Co. I of the 4th Virginia Infantry, part of the Stonewall Brigade commanded by General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a professor at neighboring Virginia Military Institute.

From 1861 to 1865, Paxton penciled his emotions and observations into six notebooks. He described the feeling when “the cannon balls from the enemy’s guns would whiz just a few feet above our bodies”; his admiration for Jackson’s “bravery & coolness”; and his surprise at “how strange that the better & kinder feelings of our natures should be thus changed” when shooting at the enemy. His diaries remained unknown to Washington and Lee and to the wider historical community until June 23 of this year, when some of his descendants put them up for auction.

The collection appeared on W&L’s radar only one week before the sale. Seth McCormick-Goodhart, a Lexington historian who works at W&L’s Special Collections and has researched the Liberty Hall Volunteers, spotted the diaries on the website of Cowan’s Auctions. They also caught the eye of C.J. Roberts, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay (Florida) History Center. Roberts is a member of the Fourth Virginia Infantry Association, a group of reenactors from Indianapolis, Ind., who study and portray the4th Virginia Infantry. His fellow member David S. Klinestiver, an attorney in Indianapolis who had done research a decade ago at W&L’s Special Collections, was thrilled to learn of the diaries’ existence. Along with Peter Grover, director of W&L’s University Collections, and Stanley, everyone agreed that Paxton’s diaries needed to come home to W&L.

But the clock was ticking, and the auction house had estimated the collection would go for $10,000 to $15,000. “We knew we could raise some of the money ourselves,” said Roberts, “but certainly not what was required.”

Roberts, Klinestiver, seven other members of the reenactors’ association and two anonymous donors quickly pledged the necessary sum. On June 23, Klinestiver placed the winning bid over the phone, besting two other bidders. On July 22, he and his fellow reenactors delivered Paxton’s diaries and its accompanying material (photographs, a rare soldier’s chess set, minie balls) to Washington and Lee.

“To come up with this collection and to be able to participate in the effort to get it in its rightful home at W&L, we’re just thrilled,” said Tom Williams, one of the reenactors and donors.

Klinestiver and his colleague Mark Haraldsen enjoyed visiting Special Collections again. “They’ve always been extremely kind to us,” said Klinestiver of Stanley and Lisa McCown, the other staff member there. “We’re just really pleased to give something back.” The timing was serendipitous for the Indianapolis group. They are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and their long-planned destination after Lexington was the 150th-anniversary reenactment of the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), which took place July 23-24 in Gainesville, Va.

Once the diaries are processed and available, McCormick-Goodhart thinks researchers “are going to be chomping at the bit” to read them. When it comes to the Liberty Hall Volunteers, he said, “We’ll be able to draw some new, exciting information about these men from them.” For his part, McCormick-Goodhart will be looking for details of uniforms and related material culture, and at Paxton’s distinctive writing style.

Also on hand to welcome the diaries home was William G. Bean Jr., of Lexington. His father, the late William Gleason Bean, a professor of history at W&L, wrote the 1964 book The Liberty Hall Volunteers: Stonewall’s College Boys. With assistance from McCormick-Goodhart, Bean Jr. has been updating the book, and he had added a photo of Paxton a few years ago. Now, thanks to this donation, Bean, W&L history students and other researchers will have a rich source of new information.