01 May 2008

The Southern Cross

Fellow CW blogger and author, Michael Aubrecht just sent me a signed copy of his most recent book: The Southern Cross - A Civil War Devotional. This is a great book to introduce someone to this most tragic era of our Nation's history and the impact faith had on the individuals involved. I would also recommend it to use in personal and family devotions as its stories are inspirational and remind us of the Providence of God not only in the history of the United States, but also in the lives of her citizens. Michael has granted me permission to post the foreword I wrote for the book . . .

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 Virginia family, Willis had chosen to pursue a life of gospel ministry and was, at the time the war broke out, studying to be a Baptist preacher. Willis’s thoughts drifted back to those days of studying New Testament Greek when he had looked forward to the day he would be able to shepherd a small flock somewhere in the Virginia countryside or, perhaps, a larger city church in Richmond or Winchester. Though he had not completed his studies, he thought how thankful he was now to know the God whom he would soon be facing.

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 Virginia countryside made the trip even more enjoyable. Mosby’s men enjoyed frequent furloughs as their rapid hit and run missions allowed them to return to their homes and farms often. But Willis’s horse came up lame near Flint Hill, forcing him to stop at the local farrier’s shop at Gaine’s Crossroad. Suddenly, Willis and an unnamed companion were surrounded by troops of the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry. Taken prisoner, the two soon learned of their fate. One of them would be hanged. That order had come from General Ulysses S. Grant as retribution for Federals Mosby had killed: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Grant’s order required that one Confederate be “hung without trial” for each yankee killed by Mosby’s men.

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 Flint Hill Baptist Church in Flint Hill, Virginia.

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.


Michael Aubrecht said...

Thanks Richard. Your words are a blessing indeed.

Anonymous said...

thank you very much! My grandfather, C. Reid who suggested for Willis' historical-marker in 1910's. Mr. Reid carved a small wood knife - Willis'name on it. My Uncle Joe donated it to the Willis Chapel Church in 1990's. Hope it still is there.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

You're welcome!