This Month in Our History
May 2011 – A Baptist hero who gave his life so another might live
Albert “Bertie” G. Willis was a genuine Baptist hero. On October 13, 1864, he was captured in Rappahannock County and held prisoner by the Federals. Shortly before, a union soldier had been murdered by one of Mosby’s men and the order went out to capture some Confederates in retaliation.
An eyewitness account reported: “I did not see young Willis but was within a short distance of him and heard the Federal officers and soldiers talking. They said they had one of Mosby’s men and did not know whether they would hang him, shoot him or cut his throat.”
The young man whose life hung in the balance was a licensed Baptist minister from the Crooked Run Baptist Church in Culpeper. Prior to the war he had served as a colporteur, or Bible and religious book distributor, for Shiloh Baptist Association.
According to one account, Willis was on leave and had stopped at a blacksmith’s shop to have his horse shod. “The ringing of the anvil prevented his hearing the approach of a party of Union soldiers. They had orders to hang the first of Mosby’s men that they caught and young Willis was the first.”
Old stories often have different versions. One account says that the soldiers were so impressed with Willis’ “coolness and nerve” that they offered to release him if he would deny that he was one of Mosby’s men. He refused and when the time came for his hanging, he prayed aloud for his captors.
There’s another version which was handed down by the generation which survived the war. Presley Harris Chelf was born in 1873 in the very neighborhood where the story took place. He served a lifetime as pastor of several country churches in the area.
Chelf was a popular revivalist and was reported to have possessed “a clear and accurate memory,” and even when his eyesight failed he marveled his hearers with his recall of Scripture from memory. The emphasis here is upon Chelf’s reliable memory.
No doubt Chelf had heard the story of Bertie Willis many times. In the 1940s he recounted the story before a meeting of the Shiloh Association. He said: “Willis and another man [who was] married and a father of several children were arrested just north of Flint Hill.
“[The Federals] let them draw straws as to which should die. The married man drew the unlucky straw whereupon he broke down in tears and said, ‘I am not a Christian and am not prepared for death.’ Willis said, ‘I am a Christian and not afraid to die. I am also single and if they will accept me as your substitute, I will die that you might live.’ “
Chelf, forever the evangelist, drew a powerful message from the story: “He was accepted and died that another might live. In a beautiful and striking picture of the substitutionary death of our Savior, he died that we might live.”
Willis’ cousin, Edward J. Willis, was pastor of Leigh Street Baptist Church, Richmond; and when Bertie’s death was announced, a Richmond newspaper reporter confused the names and wrote that Edward had been hanged. About the time the news broke, the "dead” preacher walked into a Baptist meeting and shocked those present!
Bertie Willis was hanged on a large poplar tree which grew just next to the road which led from “little Washington” to Front Royal. A placard was placed on his chest, telling the Southerners that this man was killed in retaliation. His body was taken to the nearby Flint Hill Baptist Church for burial.
There were thousands of deaths in the war, but the Baptists of Shiloh focused upon the tragedy of this hero’s death. They erected a monument at his grave. And until the hanging tree was cut down about 1933, the Shiloh Baptists would point it out. They wanted those who would come after them to know that a preacher gave his life so another might live.
The story of Bertie Willis – a Baptist hero – is but one of thousands of Civil War stories. Over the next four years the United States will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation. Bertie Willis’ story deserves to be remembered and repeated to today’s generation during this anniversary.
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