My friend Keith Graham seems to have stepped on little anthill of online commentary with his observations about the odd tenacity of the Confederate battle flag to decorate certain drowsy precincts of Georgia. Who knew that our presidents from Wilson to Obama were sending wreaths to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery every Memorial Day? And but for Piney Woods Pete’s report on gubernatorial candidate David Poythress’s ploy to question the patriotism of his opponents, who knew that the Georgia Senate just voted 43-1 to cheer Thomas Jefferson’s 1798 Kentucky Resolutions (a favorite of John Calhoun’s when he constructed his best arguments in defense of slavery, and of Richmond, Va., columnist James J. Kilpatrick when he constructed his best arguments against the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision).
I say let bygones be . . . complicated. So war is peace, and slavery is freedom when you walk through Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery here in little Lexington, Va. My wife and I walked through this shaded old cemetery the other day. The gravestones, mossy and effaced by the last century or so, say little about those committed to the earth. But I routinely assign my journalism students to dig into the local records to tell their stories, and I’ve done so myself recently. Stories are useful for complicating matters of history, a little.
The simple headstone of one General E.F. Paxton records only that he died at the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 3, 1863, at age 35. Three small Confederate battle flags planted next to the headstone suggest that someone among the living remembers him. And a single incised quotation suggests some obscure biblical contentment: It is well with thee.
Our university library tells more. Elisha Franklin Paxton was one of the best educated citizens of Lexington. He had graduated from Washington College, studied further at Yale, and finished first in his class at the University of Virginia law school in 1849 at age 21. He returned to Lexington, where he practiced law, married Elizabeth White, and had four children. In petty contracts and bills of sale tucked into a folder of the county historical society, his handwriting is graceful and precise. But the reading of legal documents wore down his eyesight. In 1860, he left his law practice, and the city, to commence farming on an estate he purchased south of town called Thorn Hill. Farming was in his blood. His father, also Elisha, owned a 280-acre farm on the south bank of the North River (now the Maury), from which this “Captain” Paxton shipped lumber and grain down to Richmond in his own barge boats. (Today, the father’s estate, with its “splendid Brick mansion, containing eight rooms,” is Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista, with the historic Paxton House in the middle.)
The younger Paxton, according to a 1905 “Foreword” by his son John Gallatin Paxton, was an ardent secessionist based on views of the Constitution he absorbed in childhood from his father (a commander in the War of 1812) and grandfather William Paxton (a commander at the siege of Yorktown in 1781). A war fought defending Virginia against a Union invasion “was as righteous to him as that waged by the Greeks at Thermopylae and his life, if needs be, must be cheerfully surrendered in such a cause,” his son wrote. Rockbridge County was strongly against secession, so Paxton lost his campaign to have secessionist delegates sent to Richmond for the secession convention. When Virginia finally seceded on April 15, 1861, Paxton was ready and eager to fight for that cause.
Paxton set off for Harper’s Ferry immediately, a first lieutenant in the Rockbridge Rifles, the first of ten companies the county would deploy. “I have no time to think of my business at home,” he wrote to his wife on April 21 from New Market, on his way to join General Thomas J. Jackson’s First Virginia brigade. “My duties now for my state require every energy of mind and body which I can devote to them.” He told his wife she could return to Lexington if she wished, and leave the keys to the farm to others.
The first battle of Bull Run, or as Southerners called it, Manassas, was a stirring victory for the Confederate army and its Celtic style of flamboyant and romantic warfare. Paxton was beside himself with joy. “My Darling,” he wrote home on July 23 from Manassas. “We spent Sunday last in the sacred work of achieving our nationality and independence. The work was nobly done, and it was the happiest day of my life, our wedding-day not excepted.” But while the South was inspired, the North learned a dark lesson from its routing. This Civil War would not be a mere Sunday picnic, as many from Washington thought when they brought blankets and lunches out to Manassas to watch the battle. “What happened along Bull Run prompted a change in Federal thinking,” wrote one historian. “The North in time would usher in tomorrow’s war: massive concentrations, hammer blows, constant pressure.” The South was fighting in the old style of the War of 1812, and so Paxton was not alone in believing his side had won an honorable peace. “I think the fight is over forever,” he wrote home. But the new industrial style would be the North’s, and it would be something horrendous that led to the trench warfare of World War I, the carpet bombings of World War II, and the defoliation of villages in Vietnam.
Paxton thought only of duty and honor, in the old style. The Lexington Gazette reported on August 8 that Paxton, in the confusion of battle at First Bull Run, had taken up with a Georgia Regiment just as its standard-bearer fell. Paxton voluntarily waved the colors for Georgia, and in the skirmishing took one bullet through his shirtsleeve, a slight wound, and counted fourteen bullet holes in the flag he carried. The newspaper described his planting the flag on the enemy’s battery, as if he had led the charge. “I do not merit the compliment paid me in a paragraph in a recent number of your paper,” Paxton wrote to correct the Gazette. He said the credit should go to others – to Bartow, Gartrell and Dunwoodie of Georgia, and to all those comrades of Virginia who fell heroically “in the midst of the terrible shower of ball and shell to which we were subjected.”
General “Stonewall” Jackson, as he was called after that first victory at Manassas, was much impressed with Paxton’s bravery and efficiency. “There is no officer under the grade proposed whom I can recommend with such confidence for promotion to Brigadier-Generalcy,” Jackson wrote on September 23, 1862, and President Jefferson Davis approved the recommended promotion. The war in Virginia lost its romance, even for Paxton. He longed for home. But duty to his state held him in bondage. “There is no use in having will or wish in the matter, for there is nothing we can do to accomplish it,” he wrote his wife on November 15, 1862. “We must wait in patience for the event when the war shall end, and those of us who survive will be at liberty to return again to our old associations and pursuits.”
Paxton began to turn more and more to religion and to Bible-reading by morning camp light, adopting the kind of calm fatalism that his superior, General Jackson, was famous for. “Our destiny is in the hands of God, infinite in his justice, goodness and mercy,” he wrote his wife on April 20, 1863, from Camp Winder. “We have a just cause, but we do not deserve success if those who are here spend this time in blasphemy and wickedness, and those who are at home devote their energies to avarice and extortion.”
On May 3, a Sunday morning, leading his company through the woods at Chancellorsville, he dismounted in order to march with his troops. Advancing into the thick of things, he was killed instantly with a shot through the chest. That night, a fellow officer brought the news to Stonewall Jackson, who lay mortally wounded from a hail of friendly fire the night before, his left arm amputated and chloroform worn off. His eyes brimmed at the mention of the deaths of Paxton and another officer. When Jackson heard of Paxton’s final hour – how he had read his Bible and slipped it into his coat pocket, had advanced on foot and fell, while General Jeb Stuart galloped ahead whooping, “Charge, and remember Jackson!” – Jackson’s face lit up with the fire of battle as he declared, “It was just like them — just like them.”
In the cemetery in Lexington, the inscription on Paxton’s headstone, it turns out, is from 2 Kings 4:26, where the Prophet Elisha at Mount Carmel asks the Shunammite woman, “Is it well with thee?” Though her son lies dead in the guest bed she once kept for Elisha’s visits, she answers him, “It is well.” But it is not well, until Elisha hastens to her house, stretches out on the lifeless body of the son and effects a miraculous resuscitation.