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By Kim Walter -- Daily Correspondent
Winchester business owners Greg and Patti Paxton own a belt buckle and a gun that, they say, are "waiting to tell a story," and in the two years since winning the two Civil War relics at an estate auction in Middleburg, the two have worked exhaustively to flesh that story out.
The items are a two-piece brass belt buckle, decorated with a Mexican eagle on a cactus holding a serpent in its mouth -- the Mexican seal of independence -- and a double-barreled militia shotgun with some noticeable wear and tear.
Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson wore the buckle during the Civil War, they say, and most notably at the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas -- when he received the "Stonewall" nickname.
The shotgun was a gift from attorney William J. Robertson to Col. John S. Mosby.
The Paxtons, of Charles Town, W.Va., own and operate an auto repair shop during the day, "but after that we go home and research until we fall asleep," Paxton said.
They are eager to share their findings.
John S. Mosby is no stranger to Civil War buffs, being a colonel and fighting in a number of the great battles that took place from 1861 to 1865. However, the story behind his shotgun starts years before his service in the war, and instead, in 1849 when he entered the University of Virginia at age 17, according to the Paxtons' research.
Mosby, often described as being slight and almost sickly looking, found himself sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a $500 fine after a well known bully, George R. Turpin, charged at him one day in Mosby's third year at school and Mosby shot him with a pepper-box pistol.
William J. Robertson, the prosecutor in Mosby's case and first president of the Virginia Bar Association, became Mosby's mentor. Mosby went on to work at Robertson's law office and eventually passed the bar exam. The two stayed lifelong friends, and Mosby even had a portrait of Robertson hanging above his fireplace.
The Paxtons aren't completely sure when Robertson gave the shotgun to Mosby. It may have been a graduation gift, or maybe was just given to him shortly before the war. Either way, behind the trigger guard, one can see the engraved message.
After taking a digital picture of the engraving and blowing it up, it was obvious that the work was done by a master of the craft.
John Mosby went on to join the militia in Abingdon and after the John Brown raid in 1859, and when Virginia knew that war was coming, he joined the Confederacy in Richmond. Because supplies were so low in the area at the time, a lot of men went with their own guns and weapons. There is no doubt in the Paxtons' minds that Mosby, incredibly proud of his shotgun, was no exception.
When the Paxtons got the gun, it came with a message, "this is my first Cavalry gun," and John Mosby's signature, dated 1911. The signature has been further examined by the owner of Confederate State Arms Incorporated, the chief of forensics in Charlotte, N.C., as well as an expert that the Smithsonian uses when it comes to signatures. All are positive that the signature is real, and the Paxtons have made sure to save all the documents proving it.
It actually made sense to the Paxtons that Jackson's belt buckle was passed over by so many others at an auction.
"People probably glanced at it, noticed it didn't look like something from the Civil War, and moved on," Patti said. "But just because it didn't come from the U.S., it doesn't mean that it wasn't Stonewall's ... and now we're sure that it was."
The story starts in 1846, the Paxtons say, when Jackson graduated from West Point and the men from his class were summoned to the Mexican-American War. It was there that Jackson began as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment, and throughout the three-year war was promoted twice, leaving as a decorated and praised first lieutenant.
In his first skirmish in Mexico, Jackson found the buckle, the Paxtons claim, when he came across a group of men, killed them and took some of their things.
Later, at the assault on Chapultepec Castle, Jackson -- basically left alone as many other men had been wounded, killed or simply fled the scene -- moved a small cannon into position and created an advantage that later led to victory. He was eventually recognized by army commander Winfield Scott in Mexico City for his tactics at that battle, as well as his heroism in others.
While in Mexico, Jackson wrote many letters to his sister, and in one he mentioned winning a Mexican cavalry saber, along with a few other items.
The buckle came attached to a blue piece of paper, something that was commonly done at the time in hopes to preserve artifacts. Two pieces of suture material keep the buckle in place with surgical square knots. A typed message also accompanies the relic, and it explains where the buckle came from, as well as whom it belonged to. John Mosby's signature, also verified by experts, is beneath the message.
Jackson went on to teach war tactics at VMI before fighting in the Civil War. He continued to use the buckle and saber, the latter of which is on display at his house in Lexington.
The Paxtons still wanted to know how the two items had ended up in the same collection, and both accompanied by Mosby's signature.
There was one key character missing: Dr. William J. Luck of Middleburg.
Luck was still in training when he enlisted at the start of the Civil War, they say, and for a portion of it his duties were strictly that of a soldier. By the end of the war, he was not only a surgeon, but also one of the most avid collectors of Civil War relics in the area.
Luck became close with Mosby while fighting, and they remained friends. Both were at the battle in Manassas, along with Stonewall Jackson, of course. Luck also was at Appomattox for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender, as well as on site when Jackson was mortally wounded in 1863 -- he saved a piece of the man's uniform. He also collected buttons, flags and other trinkets during the war, many of which were at the auction where the Paxtons bought their artifacts. They found that items from Luck's collection also came attached to the same type of blue paper.
Luck's name also is found on the back of the paper attached to the belt buckle, as well as with the shotgun.
In 1864, Mosby was recovering from a shot to the stomach at a hospital in Richmond. By then, Jackson was dead and his widow traveled back and forth between her home in Lexington and her sister's in Charlotte. On one of these trips, the Paxtons believe that she stopped by to visit Mosby.
Gov. John Letcher's office was in Richmond, and he also knew the Jacksons, the Paxtons explain. After Stonewall died, Letcher organized the Stonewall Jackson Monument Association in hopes to honor the man with a statue. Confederate soldiers sent in money to contribute, but after the fall of Richmond, the money and records were lost.
It is possible, the Paxtons say, that Mrs. Jackson was asked to bring in some of Stonewall's items to make the statue more accurate. The Paxtons think that after she showed the items, she then decided to give a few of the relics to Mosby.
The Paxtons believe that years later, Mosby and Luck, probably sat down together and went through everything they had from the war. That Luck was a doctor helps to explain the surgical square knot and suture material that ties items to the pieces of paper. They have asked many surgeons and experts on Civil War medicine, and they've verified the knot and the use of it.
The Paxtons have gone to great lengths for their research. Over the years, they have traveled to Penn State's materials research lab to take a closer look at the buckle and suture material, U.Va.'s archives to look through Mosby's scrapbooks, libraries at Duke and the University of North Carolina, as well as local libraries and historical societies.
To the couple, now married for 13 years, the research is far from over.
"We are firm believers that everything happens for a reason," Mrs. Paxton said about the path that they have been on since 2009. Their interest in Civil War history has grown immensely from the "touristy" interest they had before, especially now that she is back in school to get a degree in history.
Paxton made it a point to say that he just wants the story told so people can learn. Eventually the couple would like to see both of their relics on display at VMI along with many other salvaged items so visitors can see them all together.
"The items could be worth ... well, I don't care. They're priceless, they have no value without the history to back them up," he said. "It's like the buckle and shotgun have led us down a road and are telling their own story. They've led us to different things; it's like we're being shoved in a direction and history is sort of leading us along."