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The Stalwart Chaplain:

Captain Edward J Willis

E. J. Willis
E. J. Willis (c. 1854)


Captain Edward J Willis assumed command of the 15th Virginia Infantry during the battle of Sharpsburg. His regiment was part of Confederate General McLaws' Division which slammed into the flank and rear of Federal General Sedgwick's II Corps Division in and near the West Woods about 9 am on September 17th.

Edward Jefferson Willis was born in 1820 in Culpeper County, Virginia, the first child in a prosperous farming family. His mother, Sarah Emily (Fry), died less than a year after his birth. In 1823 his father Larkin married a minister's daughter, Mary Gordon, and with her had 20 more children over the next 30 years.

Edward was raised a Christian, and baptized at age 18. He was educated in Virginia and Massachusetts schools, and attended the University of Virginia Law School, graduating in 1842. He then began the practice of law in Charlottesville. He married Virginia Ann Sneed the next year, and they had three sons by 1848. They later had 6 more children, all daughters.

But in 1849 the goldbug may have bitten Edward, and he left his home and his young family for California. He apparently walked the 2200 miles from the jumping-off point at Independence, Missouri to Sacramento, which he reached early in 1850. This was no small feat, and suggests an inner toughness and great willpower, which would serve him well in later years.

At that time Sacramento, once not much more than a lumber mill, was a boom town growing to a population of about 9000 by 1850. In February 1850 Sacramento County was officially established. Whether he ever found any gold, in April Edward was elected County Judge, and established a residence in the town. It is likely that he brought his wife and children to join him in Sacramento, as his first daughter was born in 1852.

However, Sacramento was still a wild place. On several occasions local vigilante groups enforced the law as they saw fit - by hangings - without the sanction of Judge Willis' court, and the California Militia declared martial law at least once in 1850 to quell rioting caused by "squatters" and "claim jumpers".

In September 1850 the First Baptist Church of Sacramento was established, with 16 members, in the home of Judge E.J. Willis. This was the result of the "church planting" work of Rev. O. C. Wheeler (linked site gone 5/2005) from "back East". In those days California was considered to be the part of the country most in need of spiritual help.

In 1854 Judge Willis made a life-changing decision. He resigned from the bench, and took the commission of the Baptist Home Mission Board to start a church, the First Baptist, at Oakland, California. He was ordained a minister in October. He established the church, again at his home, in December 1854 with 6 members - including Rev. and Mrs. Willis. Oakland was incorporated as a City in that year, with a population of about seven hundred and fifty people.

He made a trip East in June 1856 to raise more money for his mission work in California, but sickness in his family convinced him to remain in Virginia. By 1860 he was pastor of the Leigh Street Baptist Church in Richmond.

When the War began for Virginians in April 1861, many of the local Richmond men joined the Henrico Grays, a former militia company, which was mustered into Confederate service on April 23rd as Company "A" of the 15th Virginia Infantry Regiment. It is not known how Edward felt about the War at that time, but shortly after the 15th Virginia was reorganized in April 1862, then a 41 year old father of 8 children (the ninth born in 1862), he was appointed Chaplain of the regiment, and sometime soon after, Captain and commander of Company A.

There were four other Willis men on the roster of Company A, among them the new Captain's younger brother Eugene H Willis (1845 - 1916) and his own firstborn Edward B Willis (1844 - 1937); both had enlisted as Privates. At least 4 of his brothers fought for Virginia. His brother Joseph (b. 1837) died a prisoner of war in 1864, but the others survived the War.

The Regiment fought around Richmond that Spring and Summer in what was known as the Peninsular Campaign, and suffered significant losses. By the time General Lee took his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Maryland in September, the Regiment was but a shadow, with fewer than 200 men present. The ranking officer was Captain Emmett Morrison, commanding Company C: all the more senior field officers were absent wounded or sick. Captain Willis was the next in line.

Here's how he describes his regiment at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, in the commanding officer's official after-action report:

September 23, 1862.

This regiment went into action under the command of Captain E. M. Morrison, of Company C, the field officers being all absent. This regiment, as all others of the brigade, was very much worn down by hard marches, loss of sleep, and scanty rations, rendering officers and men unfit for the work before them. Straggling, occasioned by sickness, sore feet, and faint-heartedness, reduced the effective strength of the regiment when presented before the enemy to 14 officers and 114 men. This strength was indeed effective, as their work proved, standing shoulder to shoulder with their brave comrades of the brigade. They showed by their unerring aim and eagerness for the charge their willingness and ability to go wherever they might be commanded by their gallant leader, General Semmes, whose bravery on this occasion commanded unwounded admiration and confidence. This regiment occupied a position in the left wing of the brigade, which was on the extreme left wing of the army. They united with great spirit in the charge to which they were ordered, and bore their part in driving from a strong position a greatly superior number of the enemy, forcing them back with great slaughter nearly 1 mile, from which they never recovered. The regiment held its position until some time after the musketry firing of the enemy had ceased, when they were withdrawn with the brigade to replenish their ammunition, which was well nigh exhausted.

In this battle the Fifteenth Virginia Regiment sustained a greater loss than any regiment of the brigade or army, as far as information has been received. Of the officers (14 in number) who entered the fight, 1 (Captain [A. V.] England, Company D) was killed, and 6 (Captain [E. M.] Morrison, commanding the regiment; Second Lieutenant Bumpass, Company C; Second Lieutenants [J. K.] Fussell and [J. H.] Allen, Company G; Second Lieutenant Berry, Company H, and First Lieutenant [G. P.] Haw, Company I) were wounded. Of the non-commissioned officers and privates, 10 were killed and 58 wounded.

So determined was the courage evinced by all the officers and men who bore a part in this fight, that it would be invidious to call names. The unusual loss, from our ranks, of men and officers has naturally cast a feeling of depression over those who now constitute the regiment.

Soon after the engagement commenced, Captain Morrison, who was bearing himself with great bravery, was seriously wounded by a shot through the right breast, which devolved the command upon Captain E. J. Willis, of Company A. The color-bearer (P. H. Hall, of Company A) having been wounded, the colors were placed in the hands of Captain Willis by Sergt. Major W. H. Briggs, who was severely wounded while bearing Captain Morrison from the field. Having rallied the regiment for the charge, Captain Willis placed the colors in the hands of R. W. Taylor, of Company B, one of the color supporters, who bore them gallantly through the engagement.

To account for the smallness of number of those present after the engagement, it is but proper to state that many were occupied in taking from the field of battle their wounded comrades, and a few who were scarcely able to march with the regiment were completely exhausted by the labor of a severe contest of more than two hours.

Respectfully submitted.

Captain, Commanding Fifteenth Virginia Regiment.

An after-War recollection said of him: "In the Battle of Antietam, while leading his regiment, he had fifteen balls shot through his hat, beard, and uniform, but he emerged from battle without a wound." This may be an exaggeration, but he did come out of the furious combat unwounded.

Capt Willis continued in service with the regiment, through combat around Richmond, in Tennessee, and in North Carolina, into 1864. He was part of the "Great Revival" of religious feeling which swept the Army in 1863, as seen in this account:

M.D. Anderson, Army Evangelist [?], sent in a report of the revival under E.J. Willis occurring in Corse's Brigade near Carter's Station, Tennessee, September 29, 1863.

'It has been my privilege recently to bear testimony to the work of grace which has been going on in this brigade. Upon my arrival here I was pleased to learn that a glorious revival was going on ... The meetings are conducted by the Rev. Mr. August, the faithful Chaplain of the Fifteenth Virginia, assisted by Captain Willis of the same regiment. A large number have professed faith in Christ, while many others are deeply concerned on accounts of sin. Today Brother Willis baptized fourteen, seven of whom are from his regiment.'

In February 1864 he requested Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper relieve him of command of his Company so he could attend to the needs of his father's family:

My own family, my widowed mother's family and the families of two of my brothers in the service have had their homes broken up and desolated by the enemy, making it necessary for them to remove to a distant portion of the state for security and livelihood.

Within the past three weeks places have been secured for them in Carroll Co., Va, about 270 miles distant from their homes on the Rapidan River to which locality it becomes necessary that they be removed at once.

These families are dependant upon me for the attention and assistance necessary in the accomplishment of this purpose as all my brothers, five in number who could render assistance are all in service.

I leave with my company three capable and efficient Lieutenants.

Very Respectfully, Your obedient servant,

Edw. J. Willis,
Capt. Co. A, 15th Virginia Regiment

The request was denied, or he had a change of mind, because Edward remained on duty with Company A until he was transferred to the Barracks Hospital at Richmond in October 1864. He was mustered out of the regiment to the hospital in January 1865, ending his active military service in the field.

After the war he returned to his calling as a minister. From 1865 to 1867 he was pastor at Gordonsville and Orange Court-House [Va]; from 1867 to 1869 he was pastor of the church in Alexandria [Va]; then he went as missionary pastor to Winchester [Va]; and in 1872 took charge of the Winchester Female Institute, later Broaddus Female College, and moved to Clarksburg, WVa. (Broaddus eventually merged with Alderson Academy to form Alderson-Broaddus College at Philippi, WV.)

His wife Virginia died in 1875, and some time later he married Mollie Rogers. In 1883, when Edward was 63 years of age, Mollie and their unnamed baby boy died, probably in childbirth. He later married, for the third time, a woman named Eva Taylor.

Reverend Willis died February 26, 1891 and was buried at "Woodland", his father's house, in Orange County, Virginia.

[Notes, References, Sources - willis.txt]