Friday, May 20, 2005

One frequently judges the fame or heroism of a man by the size and scope of the monument to his memory. Imposing stone edifices stand in places all across the South, each one a mute testament to the person it honors.

In a tiny picket-fenced plot behind a pristinely beautiful little church in Flint Hill, Va., is the sparsely tended grave of a Confederate hero, Albert Gallatin Willis, who gave his life at age 20.

His was one of numerous executions carried out by Union soldiers in retaliation for the actions of Col. John Singleton Mosby’s famed partisan Rangers.

Willis was the son of Robert and Emily Hudson Willis and had grown up at Locust Grove in Culpeper County, the home of his grandfather, Isaac Willis.

A young man of privilege and upbringing, he was studying to become a Baptist minister when the war broke out. His studies probably were at the small school sponsored by what would become the Shiloh Baptist Association, but he had not yet completed his schooling.

He had been with Mosby for several months and had experienced his share of narrow escapes, most occurring in his home territory. Mosby’s men were not the typical Southern soldiers who lived in the field in tents. Their activities took them into the towns and farms of the area, where they were able to quietly board with sympathizers between skirmishes.

Willis, being a ministerial student, was boarding with the local minister, Thaddeus Herndon of Scuffleburg. In February 1864, the Union forces found where Mosby’s men were staying, and Willis eluded capture by jumping out a second-story window of the minister’s home, according to the “43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry Regimental History.” He would not be as lucky two months later.

Mosby’s men had been extremely active, capturing railroad cars and wagon trains and relieving the passengers of their money and jewelry, including the Greenback Raid, where the Rangers took some $168,000 from a paymaster’s train.

Gens. William T. Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan and George A. Custer and those below them were in no mood to put up with any more trouble from Mosby and his Rangers; Mosby himself was still recovering from being shot a short time earlier. He had killed more than a few Federals, and revenge was ripe in the minds of the Union troops.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had taken a personal interest in stopping Mosby, at one time declaring that he would kill one of Mosby’s Rangers for each Federal killed by them. He issued an order that such prisoners were to be “hung without trial.”

After several months with Mosby’s group, Willis was on furlough and proceeding toward his home in Culpeper. About four miles from Flint Hill, his horse went lame, and he stopped at the blacksmith’s shop at Gaines Crossroads.

The leaves rustled on the trees in the Rappahannock County foothills of the Blue Ridge, and the sound of the smithy’s hammer and anvil drowned out the sound of approaching troops of the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry. That unit captured Willis and an unnamed comrade outside the local farrier’s at Gaines Crossroads, the present-day hamlet of Ben Venue.

Col. William H. Powell spoke with the young man and told him that he could be spared execution if he claimed a chaplain’s exemption. Willis was quite aware that he did not deserve the distinction at this point in his studies and refused to exercise the option. Powell then ordered Willis and the other captured soldier to draw straws to decide who would lose his life.

Col. Powell would be promoted to general a few days later, after the Battle of Cedar Creek.

A little book titled “My Rappahannock Story Book,” published in 1950 by local author Elizabeth Hite Dietz, describes the incidents that followed. “The unknown man was the unlucky one; he burst into tears saying: ‘I have a wife and children, I am not a Christian and [I] am afraid to die.’ Nobly, Willis replied: ‘ I have no family, I am a Christian, and not afraid to die.”

With those words, the family man was released and young Albert Willis was hanged from the limb of a large poplar tree in the tiny town of Huntly, Va.

Later that evening, three local men, John P. Ricketts, Robert Deatherage and William Bowling, came to the spot and cut down Willis’ lifeless body. Mrs. Deatherage offered to take it to her church, Flint Hill Baptist, on today’s U.S. 522, and see to it that he was given a Christian burial there in the churchyard. Mr. and Mrs. Deatherage are also buried there.

Through the years, the Willis grave was infrequently tended, until some 15 years ago an Eagle Scout in the area took up the project of placing a small fence around it to set apart the plot.

Since that time, the dilapidated and decrepit shed of an abutting landowner has almost fallen down on it, while the pickets are pulling loose and have only remnants of their original white paint. Yet the stone marker saying “A.G. Willis Killed October 13, 1864” remains clear.

The poplar tree survived until it was cut down late in the 1940s when U.S. 522 was widened. A local minister, the Rev. Harris Chelf, retained a block of its wood from which he had a young man named Justus Dulaney of Peola Mill cut a strong, firm gavel while Dulaney was home on furlough from World War II.

Mrs. Dietz’s book tells how Dulaney was killed less than a month later in battle. Chelf presented the gavel to the Shiloh Baptist Association in September 1944, saying: “So this gavel is a memorial to two fine young men, who gave their lives for their country.”

Dolores Chelf Smith, president of the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is the granddaughter of Chelf and remembers her grandfather telling her the story of Albert Willis when she was a child.

Willis remains memorialized in an even larger way. The United Methodist Church of Huntly built the Albert G. Willis Chapel in his memory near the site of his hanging. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has also added a historical marker telling the sad story of the young Confederate’s death.

The history of Willis Chapel written by Fannie Eastham of Flint Hill lends a bit of apocryphal color to the original story. She says that “a deserter from the Northern Army was met near Flint Hill by some of Mosby’s men, who being under the influence of whiskey accosted the man, some words were exchanged and the deserter was killed by the Confederate soldiers.

“They then threw his body in a nearby grove, the property of Col. Thomas Settle of Flint Hill. Mosby’s men, still somewhat intoxicated, went on through the village telling the story of what they had done, and of course, the news soon spread.

“In the meantime, some passer-by had seen the body of the dead soldier and had notified Col. Settle, and he and his wife had gone immediately to the scene and after wrapping the body in a blanket, had quickly buried it.

“A little later a detachment of Federal soldiers was passing through the village, and hearing through some sympathizer, perhaps, of the killing of one of their men, swore vengeance upon the rebels, even though the man was a deserter.” It goes on to depict the capture and execution of Albert Willis.

Arlend Welch, widow of a World War II soldier who was imprisoned at Stalag 7, proudly shows the Flint Hill Baptist Church down the road from Huntly, with its Louis Tiffany-style windows and old pump organ, and wistfully hopes that one day the small membership will find a way to grow in size and be able to better care for the grave of Albert Willis, who the small congregation claims as one of its own.

In retrospect, perhaps Willis has one of the largest memorials of all, one based on integrity, honor and his faith in God, with both a marked grave and a small chapel bearing his name.

Martha M. Boltz is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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