150 Years Ago This Week: ‘Greater love hath no man’

October 1864

Some of Lt. Col. John Mosby’s Rangers attacked a Union train of ambulance wagons on Sept. 23, 1864, near Front Royal, before being driven off by the approach of Union cavalry under Col. Charles Lowell on the road from Luray.

A young Pvt. Albert Willis volunteered to be hanged in place of his companion.
A young Pvt. Albert Willis volunteered to be hanged in place of his companion.

In the ensuing melee, Lt. Charles McMasters of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry was supposedly mortally wounded and robbed after he had surrendered to the Rangers. Six of the Rangers were captured and executed, in accordance with orders from Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan that “wherever Mosby’s Rangers are caught, they are to be considered as outlaws and executed without trial.”

Gen. Sheridan had had enough of the harassment from “The Gray Ghost” and his men. The war in 1864 had turned very ugly, with reprisal executions and the destruction of homes and properties of civilians by the Union troops.

Now, almost a month later, on Oct. 13, Col. Mosby and a number of his men attacked a B&O Railroad train near Kearneysville, W. Va. (west of Harpers Ferry), and, in what has been called “The Greenback Raid,” made off with $173,000 from two U.S. Army paymasters before burning the train.

That same day, a party of troopers from the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry was scouting in Rappahannock County, and came across the body of a dead Federal soldier. It was later determined that the Union soldier had been a deserter and had been slain by two men named Chancellor and Myers, whom the angry Union cavalrymen believed were two of Col. Mosby’s Rangers.

According to Col. Mosby, about Oct. 1, a man in civilian clothes arrived at the home of a Mr. Myers in Fauquier County. The stranger asked for work, alleging that he was a deserter from the Union army, and remained with Mr. Myers for several days.

Chancellor, a Confederate soldier from Fauquier County, came home on furlough to see his family, and had stopped to visit his neighbor, Mr. Myers. As Chancellor was about to leave, some civilians rode up with the deserter. They accused him of being a spy, using the ploy of being a deserter. Chancellor agreed to escort the alleged deserter to the Confederate provost marshal in Charlottesville.

After making two attempts to escape from Chancellor, he told the man that if he tried to escape again, “it will be your last.” The deserter tried again and Chancellor killed him. Col. Mosby later said that neither Chancellor nor Myers were members of his command.

On Oct. 13, the West Virginia cavalrymen tracked two of Col. Mosby’s Rangers to a blacksmith shop — still standing today — near Gaines’ Crossroads (today U.S. 211 and Route 729). The two Rangers were surprised, and one of them, Albert Willis, attempted to hide in the chimney above the forge.

The Federals smoked out the Rangers and stated they intended to take them both to Front Royal and hang one of them in retaliation for the dead Union soldier. The two Rangers drew straws to see who would hang; the other Ranger, whose name has never been determined, drew the short straw.

He pleaded with his captors that he was married with a wife and children, and his death would leave them in dire straits. Pvt. Albert Willis, of Co. C of the Rangers’ battalion, was a 20-year-old unmarried divinity student; he agreed to be hanged in place of his companion. The Federals offered Pvt. Willis an exemption because of his ministerial studies, but he refused.

On Oct. 14, en route to Front Royal, just north of the settlement at Huntly, the Union cavalry decided it was time to hang Pvt. Willis on the Chester Gap road adjacent to the Marlow Farm. Around 11 a.m., while two troopers climbed to the top of a young poplar sapling, Pvt. Willis prayed for his executioners. The troopers bent the top of the poplar down and tied one end of a bridle to the top of the tree and the other end around Pvt. Willis’ neck.

In an instant, the troopers released the tree and quickly yanked Pvt. Willis off the ground. Before leaving for Front Royal with the unnamed Ranger, the Federals placed a placard on Pvt. Willis’ body which read, “This is the fate of Mosby’s men,” and warned that the body was not to be removed.

The next day, three Flint Hill citizens, John Ricketts, Robert Deatherage and William Bowling, took the body down from the tree, and conveyed it to the churchyard behind the Baptist church in Flint Hill, where he rests today. As it is written in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.