The twenty year-old Confederate soldier swallowed hard as the noose was tightened around his tense neck. His heart felt as though it would pound out of his chest, yet he faced the last enemy with exemplary bravery for one so young. It was 14 October 1864 and there was a chill in the air. The events that had brought him to such a fate whirled through his mind’s last moments as the bright autumn sun warmed his youthful face. Though his body was flooded with adrenalin, a calm peace slowly settled over his spirit and soul. Even his executioners looked on with admiration.
Albert Gallatin Willis had been serving with Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s rangers for several months. He relished the daring deeds of Mosby’s raids and already had experienced several brushes with death. Earlier in the year, on February 18, Willis and James Foley Kemper had jumped from the 2nd-story window of Parson Thaddeus Herndon's house barely escaping capture by Federals.
Though born into a wealthy
Earlier in the day, Willis had been looking forward to seeing his home as he headed toward Culpeper. The brightly colored autumn leaves in the
Speaking with the two young men separately, Colonel William H. Powell informed them they were to draw straws to determine which man would die. Powell also informed Willis that he could claim a Chaplain’s exemption, if he so chose. Willis had not yet been ordained and knew he deserved no such consideration. He refused Powell’s offer. The two prisoners were brought back together and ordered to draw straws. At first, providence seemed to have chosen Willis’s unnamed companion to die. He burst into tears crying, “I have a wife and children, I am not a Christian and am afraid to die!”
Upon hearing those words, Willis spoke up: “I have no family, I am a Christian, and not afraid to die.” Due to Willis’s willingness to stand in his stead, the unconverted man was released. Within moments, after praying for his executioners, Albert Gallatin Willis was hanged and his limp body swung silently from a nearby poplar tree; the only sound heard being that of the hemp rope as it strained against the bark of the tree. After they were sure he was dead, the Federals rode off, leaving Willis’s lifeless body hanging from the tree—a solemn warning to the rest of Mosby’s men. As evening fell, three locals: William Bowling, Robert Deatherage, and John P. Rickets, cut down Willis’s corpse and took it to the Deatherage home. There, his body was prepared and given a Christian burial. Today his remains rest inside a white picket fence in the tiny graveyard of
Many would say that Albert Gallatin Willis died in vain. But did he? Is it likely that the freed man ever forgot Willis’s sacrifice and gift? Is it not likely that Willis’s sacrificial death reminded his companion of another’s sacrifice that offers us all another kind of freedom? God only knows what impact Willis’s death had upon that unknown man, his children, his descendants, and the Federal officers who witnessed how well a real Christian dies.
Mostly forgotten by history, this young man’s story of self-sacrifice is but one example of hundreds of similar stories that took place during the time of our Nation’s greatest struggle; stories of unbelievable courage, self-denial, love, and faith in a God. Stories that still amaze and inspire us; stories that remind us of man’s cruelty—as well as his potential for goodness when empowered by the Gospel of Christ.
That, dear reader is what you will find within the pages you now hold in your hands. And author Michael Aubrecht’s superb telling of these stories will cause you, too, to look upon these examples with admiration.