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A predestinarian's premonition and a singing major general
Part 32 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville
Date published: Sat, 10/12/2002
THE ATTRIBUTES that put the wreath of a Confederate gener- al officer on Elisha Franklin Paxton's collar had nothing to do with military education or experience. Instead, being a resident of Lexington and a Presbyterian made the difference.
The 35-year-old Paxton, a native of Rockbridge County and a kinsman of Sam Houston, had attended Washington College (now Washington & Lee), Yale, and the University of Virginia Law School. He practiced law in Lexington, and became a deacon with Thomas J. Jackson in the Presbyterian Church. The two men both belonged to the Franklin Society in Lexington.
Frank Paxton served for a time in 1861 on the staff of his Lexington friend, by then known as "Stonewall" Jackson. With a commission as major of the 27th Virginia, a regiment drawn from the Lexington area, Paxton fought through Jackson's victorious campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. In the late spring of 1862, however, the major ran afoul of the newly inaugurated system under which all officers through the rank of colonel came up for election by popular vote. The deeply pious, large (friends called him "Bull" Paxton), brusque, near-sighted officer had not engendered enthusiasm in the ranks, and he could not win election to office.
Stonewall Jackson gave the former major an important job on his staff. The general's military family, as was typical of that era, closely reflected his personal interests. Almost all of them were Presbyterians, including divinity students and a prominent theologian as chief of staff. In the fall of 1862, when a general's death in battle opened the position, Jackson appointed Frank Paxton brigadier general, above the reach of the electoral system, and put him in command of the most famous brigade in the army--Jackson's own original command, the Stonewall Brigade.
Frank Paxton's letters home survive in gratifying volume. They leave no doubt that he was a man of integrity, dedication and intellect. Elevating him over so many men with more extensive credentials, however, astonished the army. "Imagine," Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill wrote to Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart, "Paxton, a brigadier-general!"
How well the new brigadier might have developed as a leader remains unanswerable. At Fredericksburg, his first battle in command, the brigade occupied a reserve position. During the mighty attack on May 2, 1863, Paxton's Brigade moved up the Orange Plank Road as a flank guard without being much engaged. On the morning of May 3, anyone could see unmistakably, every Confederate unit in the vicinity would fight desperately.
Gen. Paxton knew on the night of May 2 that he would die the next morning. He calmly expressed the unshakable premonition to his staff, told them where to find important papers in his desk, and asked that someone write to his wife. As the brigade prepared to join the dawn attack the next morning, he peered myopically at his pocket Bible in the dim light. Just as the advance started, a bullet hit the general in the chest. An aide by his side put an arm under the wounded man to lift him, but within moments Frank Paxton was dead.
A monument, erected in 1960 a few hundred yards south of that to Gen. Jackson, marks the vicinity of Gen. Paxton's death.
A Northern general also went down mortally wounded within sight of where Jackson fell. Like Frank Paxton, Gen. Hiram G. Berry of Maine brought neither military education nor battle experience to the war. He had commanded a prewar New England militia company, but in an atmosphere more social than warlike. Berry's background included stints as a navigator, a businessman and a carpenter, but the prominence that gave him a chance at command rose--as was typical in the Civil War--from political office. As mayor of Rockland, then in the Maine legislature, Berry earned enough renown to win command of citizen-soldiers early in the war. A good record in battle moved him to brigadiers rank.
Gen. Berry's primary zone of action early on May 3 actually lay north of the Orange Plank Road (modern State Route 3), but he imprudently determined to give orders in person to some troops south of the road. As he dashed across that fire-swept corridor, Berry went down, hard-hit. "I am dying," he told the staff members who dragged him to cover, "carry me to the rear." They took the wounded officer to the Chancellorsville Inn, where his prognosis proved accurate. Hiram Berry died at age 38.
The battle south of the main road, which Hiram Berry sought in vain to influence and where Frank Paxton died, moved slowly but steadily from west to east. Confederate attacks kept the pressure moving in that direction. Soldiers for the first time in the war came up against substantial field fortifications, built primarily of trees cut down and laid lengthwise. A few months hence such protective devices would include more earth heaped over the wood, but at Chancellorsville soldiers often called the lines "log works." The desirability of throwing a barrier between oneself and rifled musketry finally, tardily, was taking hold.
Bullets and shells shredded the timber around the Confederates, and they suffered deadly losses every time they advanced toward the fortified Federals. Some Southerners, including part of Paxton's famous veteran brigade, newly bereft of their commander, lost heart and refused to advance. Gen. Jeb Stuart prodded and cajoled the troops. In a flamboyant fashion diametrically opposed to what Jackson's corps had been accustomed to seeing, the young general (he had just turned 30) rode among the men. "Old Joe Hooker, won't you come out of the Wilderness," he sang, to the tune of a popular melody. A South Carolinian who saw Stuart that morning marveled at his "richly caparisoned steed" and thought that the general and mount "together constituted the grandest figure of man and horse that I have ever seen."
The Southern soldiers who responded to Stuart's urgings and headed east soon found themselves fighting desperately in the thickets. A Northern colonel described the action: "no stopping, no breathing space, but a long, fierce, and desperate contest." Some Federals thought the stand-up exchange of musketry rivaled the struggle for the famous cornfield at Antietam eight months earlier.
The fight that Stuart directed included nothing of subtlety, no hint of the flitting and dashing cavalry maneuvers for which he was renowned. He had no other choice. The Confederate army's halves must be reunited, and straight ahead afforded the only practicable alternative to that end. A perspicacious Southern observer, although not slow to be critical on occasion, wrote that on May 3 Stuart "never seemed to hesitate or to doubt for one moment that he could just crash his way wherever he chose."
Infantrymen suffered most under such circumstances, and infantrymen would win the battle, but the relentless roar of artillery firing from Hazel Grove set the tone. When Confederates pushed ahead, the artillery helped pave the way; when they fell back, it still roared steadily and pounded the Federal positions. The ceaseless hammering eventually would pay off.
Next Week: Intense fighting in the woods
ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.