By Jonathan W. White
Reverend George Junkin was furious when he saw a secession flag flying over the main building of Washington College in Lexington, Va. A native of Pennsylvania, Junkin had served as president of the college (now Washington & Lee University) for more than a decade.
But in the spring of 1861, Junkin could tell that events were swirling beyond his control. “I’ll take that flag down, if I have to tear the building down!” he declared. He instructed the janitor to remove the flag and burn it. But by the next night the students of Washington College hung a new, even larger secession banner—and they, along with the faculty, would not allow this flag to be removed. Junkin knew he could not fulfill his duties as president of the college. At a chapel session, he read his resignation letter before the students and faculty, vowing, “I’ll never teach under a rebel flag!”
One student in attendance at chapel that morning was Alexander Sterrett Paxton (1840-1914), a member of the class of 1861. Paxton, like many of his fellow classmates, became swept up in the emotion and excitement of the moment. In April 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Liberty Hall Volunteers, a company made up of students led by James Jones White, a professor of Greek and Latin. Eventually, the Washington College boys became Company I of the 4th Virginia Infantry, part of the famous Stonewall Brigade. Paxton fought in numerous engagements, from First Manassas through the Petersburg Campaign.
Throughout his service, Paxton kept diaries, six in all, chronicling his experiences as a soldier. One of these volumes provides a unique historical record. In it, Paxton documented the dreams that he had between January 7 and March 1, 1864. During this period, Paxton and his comrades were in winter quarters at Camp Stonewall Jackson near Pisgah Church, located in Virginia between Culpeper and Charlottesville. The months before and after the dream diary had been eventful for Paxton. In May 1863, while serving as company sergeant, he was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Chancellorsville and hospitalized for several months. Soon after his return to the ranks he suffered his second wound at the Battle of Mine Run on Nov. 27, 1863. About this time, he was promoted to commissary sergeant, and served in this capacity at Camp Stonewall Jackson through the rest of his enlistment. Paxton suffered a third wound at Petersburg, a month after he concluded the diary.
Dream reports provide us with a raw and unfiltered glimpse into the experiences of Civil War soldiers. In many instances, dreams proved an escape from the harsh realities of soldiering. At other times, dreams expressed soldiers’ deepest and most intimate feelings, vulnerabilities, desires, fears, aspirations, anxieties and hopes. As is common in most people’s dreams, Paxton’s nighttime meanderings often followed irrational patterns, jumping from one scene to the next. The most prominent themes to emerge in his dreams are violence, education, seeing old friends (especially women), and his work as a commissary sergeant. The following excerpts give a sense of one Confederate soldier’s exciting wartime dream life. I have regularized the formatting of the dates and, in a few instances, silently corrected punctuation.
January 7. Was at Mr. Echols. Met him at door. Miss Millie was there & Mrs. Echols. Eating dinner. I ate too. Slapped a nigger up stairs & had to explain &c.
Was in engagement with enemy above Mr. Echols. Heavy firing. Was going black cherrying & got into the muss. Our battery was riddling a brick house. We had to cross a road commanded by Yankee bat[terie]s. Nobody hurt. Next was at a meeting of some kind. Saw many ladies & some old friends. … Cruised & pryed around generally. Next was in Lex. at Mr. Compton’s. Saw Miss Lula B—now Mrs. Semmes &c. Last but not least was promenading on some beautiful walk in Lex with Miss Frances. Was another lady & gent too, dont remember names. Enjoying myself amazingly when awoke & to my regret ’twas all a dream. …
January 8. Was going to school in Arnold’s Valley at Gray Spring. Miss Belle Anderson was there. Was writing. Mr. Paine was teacher. Barred him out for holiday. Got him down & was choking him, when agreed to our proposals, got up & said ’twas rough treatment. Thought Sam Lyle (Lieut) was there. [Lyle was a fellow member of Paxton’s regiment.] He & I got into a muss somehow. I choked him. No blood shed tho’. Thought was at my scales weighing out meat. Had beef & bacon. Gave some companies beef & some bacon. Was crossing river at home. River high. Nobody drowned. Tho’ was somebody scared. Came out on south side some distance below the landing at the old Persimmon tree.
January 10. Got home. Took them all by surprise. My sister Emma didn’t want to kiss me because had a big mustache. …
January 11. Only remembered being at coz. R. McClure’s. He came home. Kissed them all & called coz. Mary his “fat-wife.”
January 12. Was in a fight. Exposed to musketry fire. Shot at fellow. Missed him. Knew he wd. return the compliment. Tried to hide myself behind log. Yet he hit me in side. Started to go off but fell. Was at the Ferry at Mr. Anderson’s. Wanted over. Watson’s John [perhaps a slave owned by the Watson family] brought canoe over. Said wd. charge me 5$. Told him to go ahead. In danger of going over Dam. Yet come out safe & nobody was drowned. …
January 13. Was in a fight. Some shelling & they burst near me. Didn’t fancy it much. Didn’t get hit. Next was making a speech somewhere. Was rolling out the ideas. Old Irish woman had my speech, copy of it. Gave it to me. Was going to college or school somewhere. Studying &c (don’t remem). Also had a tooth pulled. Came out easy.
January 14. Was at home. Several girls there. Carried wood upstairs (old). Was down picking potatoes with the bloods [blood hounds?]. Old sow knocked me down & was chawing at me at wonderful rate. Bloods didn’t notice me at first. Liked to have killed me. Was in orchard getting apples. Went all over it. Some of trees didn’t have many on, others were loadened. Next thought our Co. were on picket in front of our house. Had a line of pickets out in the orchard & above orchd. Enemy didn’t come. Was in old house on river bank. Niggers were in the kitchen &c. Boats were coming up the river. Went into the tunnel. Were working it in large force. Went in on upper r. road track. Tho’t was shunning some fellow I insulted. Missed him. Talking with Pa about digging a canal, so as to let lock boat come up to mouth of Tunnel. I proposed to raise the dam at Balcony Falls, so as to back water up branch. Then remembered ’twould overflow our bottoms. Came over Salling’s Mt. Met a friend. Went into a store with him. [In the store Paxton got into a heated argument about how to pronounce the word “supple.”]. … Was counting out some money to some fellow. Couldn’t get it right. At last made the right change. Then went into some confectionary & got some good things to eat &c &c.
January 15. Was going to school in Arnolds Valley. Was coming home. Met Yankee line of bat. Was a funeral procession of some Yank officer. We had to fall back. Fellow was going to shoot at me. I had no gun. Scared me like thunder. However jumped over fence & escaped him. Was quite an engagement. I got behind. Hid in brush. I saw Yanks going by. Had lots of our prisoners too. Old Yank at last got me out of brush pile. Tables were turned. I was taking prisoners. Got splendid gold watch & chain from old Yank. He grumbled about it. Told him to “dry up,” or would shoot him. Dried up in quick time. Got in sight of school house. Yanks were thick there. Was on the road leading down the creek. Yanks saw us. Had to leave our prisoners & run like thunder. Yanks close after us. I ran up the mt. close by the big [swimming?] hole in creek. Caught by a tree to pull up mt & old tree gave way by roots & fell down, thus telling old Yanks I was going up the mt. ’Twas so steep that rocks & dirt slid down as went. He came on & got me on top. Brought me back to school house. … Was in a room some where. An old Yank, the one took watch from, was trying to shoot me thro’ the window. Didn’t do it tho. …
January 17. Was in meadow at home. Saw Harry Estil. Talked to him about Ordinance &c. Was at Uncle Wm’s. Several young persons there. Was down at river. Uncle Wm. fell in. Was wading at fording &c twas in big fight. Balls were flying thick. I was not engaged but under heavy fire. Fight was in our back field. Enemy on hill & we down in hollow. Enemy routed, & fled. At first I was going over field hunting wounded friends. Also looked for good Yankee overcoat. I saw several of our Co. J. Moore & others w[oun]ded. Met some old cits [cadets?] hunting for 5th Reg’t. Told them to follow me. Fight commenced again. I got shot in right f[oo]t behind big toe. Went off on a gun for crutch. Hosp’t was at big oak in road. Sandy place. Got two crutches before got there. Couldn’t get wound dressed. … Came back to Hosp’t. Next was put in house. Two beds in it. Didn’t like it a bit. Next was coming home on crutches. … Pa & the bloods saw us. Came to meet us. I got up new stairs. Aunt Eliza was washing fancy article. … Came down. Never had my wound dressed. Ma probed it & got out ball. Hurt badly. Felt good tho’ afterward. …
“Some officer was riding along & insulted me. I slipped off & knocked him over with my fist, then I made good time getting away as he had a sword. But he got on horse & coming up to me, cut me on head & arm with sword. I took sword from him & he had to dig away.”
January 19. Got into an old fellow’s barn yard. Some officer was riding along & insulted me. I slipped off & knocked him over with my fist, then I made good time getting away as he had a sword. But he got on horse & coming up to me, cut me on head & arm with sword. I took sword from him & he had to dig away. Next was in the forks of the N. River & James. Was studying medicine & going around with some Dr. Went to old negro’s house to see a child. Child was very sick. Died whilst we were there. Didn’t do much good that trip. Was down in Augusta visiting. Went to see Miss Sallie G. She was standing out on porch. I was coming in on side way. … I cried out to Miss S—“Here comes your sweetheart.” She ran in house. Met me at door. Went in & was having a nice time when awoke & ’twas all a dream. …
January 21. Thought I was at a friend’s visiting. Miss Frances lived there. Saw her & thought she never looked so interesting before. Was sitting by her & enjoying myself amazingly when I awoke & to my deepest regret found ’twas all a dream. …
January 22. Was in Lex. Went over to college. Met good many new students. Had a ΔΔ badge on. In a room studying. Next was over at Mr. Compton’s. Out in porch & only saw Mr. Compton. Came back again & my sister Emma with me. Went in room where all were except Miss Kate. All were in at dinner. I had just come in. Suddenly Miss Kate opened door & came in looking beautiful as an angel. I spoke to her. Told me, she congratulated me on being married. Told the miss she was mistaken but if she was willing I’d soon be. Don’t remember her answer. …
February 26. Saw Miss Frances. Rode up to her house. She came out on porch & blushed deeply when saw me. Then went in & shook hands with them all. Then had a splendid time.
March 1. Saw Miss Frances. Was having the nicest kind of a time with her. Was just about to “pop the question,” when some persons came in and caught me. They had impudence to laugh at us. Wished they were all “[Greek for ‘in hell’].”
References: Alexander Sterrett Paxton Papers, Washington & Lee University Special Collections, James G. Leyburn Library; Alexander S. Paxton, Memory Days: In Which the Shenandoah Valley is Seen in Retrospection, with Glimpses of School Days and Life of Virginia People of Fifty Years Ago; Robert J. Driver Jr., Confederate Soldiers of Rockbridge County, Virginia; Alexander S. Paxton military service record, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Special thanks to Seth McCormick-Goodhart, Lauren Howry and Randall C. Higgins of Washington & Lee, who assisted with transcriptions.
Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and author, most recently, of Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War. For more information, visit jonathanwhite.org.
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