In the reconnaissance to and skirmish at Gilbert's Ford (also called Lock's Ford) on the Opequon, September 13, 1864, among the men wounded by shells from a battery on the further side of the stream, was Lt. Henry E. Bedell, of Company D of the 11th. The remarkable history of his case, surpassing fiction in romantic interest, is thus narrated by Col. Walker  . . . 

       Lt. Bedell was a man of splendid physique, muscular and athletic, over six feet tall and about 28 years of age. An unexploded shell crashed through his left leg above the knee, leaving flesh at either side, and a ghastly mass of mangled muscles, shattered bones and gushing arteries between. The bleeding was stopped by compression and the surgeons speedily amputated the leg at the upper third. Everything that the rude circumstances permitted was done for the sufferer, but there was little hope of his recovery. Though his natural vigor was in his favor, his very size and muscular strength on which he had prided himself were against him, for it was computed that over sixty-four square inches of flesh were laid bare by the surgeon's knife. His right hand had also been seriously injured at the same time, receiving comminuted fractures of the bones of three fingers and of the middle hand. The treatment of the hand was, however, deterred until it should be seen whether he would rally from the shock of amputation. 

       The ride of seven miles back to camp at nightfall was a terrible ordeal to the wounded man. An ambulance under the most favorable circumstances is no "downy bed of ease", and the jolting over rough ground and across ditches partially filled with rails, reduced Bedell's chances of life to hardly one in a thousand. His death was in fact expected every minute, but sustained by stimulants and his indominable courage, he reached the army lines alive. 

       Fortunately a house was accessible, and the use of a vacant room on its second story was obtained, where Bedell was placed on a pick hastily stuffed with straw upon the floor.

       To the surprise of everyone, he survived the night, and a faint hope of saving his life was awakened, On the second day after the skirmish, the surgeons decided to attempt the rehabilitation of the shattered hand. One or two fingers were removed, the broken bones were adjusted and the patient rallied in good spirits from this operation--but his struggle for life had just begun. After a few days of such rest as his miserable pallet could afford, orders issued in preparation for the coming battle of the Opequon came to remove the sick and wounded to Harper's Ferry, 20 miles away. Army wagons and ambulances were loaded with the unfortunates and an attempt was made to transport Bedell with the rest. But although he had already endured a rougher journey, it was while his wounded nerves were benumbed by the first shock of his injury. Now the torn and gashed flesh had become inflamed, and he had less strength to endure the torture. 

      At every motion of the ambulance he groaned with agony, and it was soon evident that it would cost him his life to carry him one mile. He was returned to his straw pallet, all but expiring. The Army moved in the morning and Bedell was left lying on his chamber floor with a soldier nurse and such hospital as he would be likely to need before his death. The soldier left to care for him soon followed the army, at Bedell's request, for the country swarmed with guerillas, and under the system of reprisals adopted by Mosby and Custer the life or death of the nurse would have been a mere question of time, had he remained. 

       The family who allowed the Union officer the use of their naked room to die in, had little sympathy for their unfortunate guest. The solemn promises, made to his comrades, to give him care and attention were deliberately violated, and his chamber was never entered by them. Death, horrible in its pain and loneliness, must have come quickly, had not a good Samaritan appeared in the person of a southern woman who united with a tender heart the rarest courage, devotion and perseverance. 

       Mrs. Bettie Van Metre was a Virginian, born in the Luray Valley, scarcely twenty at the time in question, and of attractive personal appearance. She had been educated in comfortable circumstances and before the war her husband had been moderately wealthy, but now his farm was as barren as a desert, not a fence to be seen, and nothing to protect had any enclosure remained; there was a mill upon the premises, but the miller had gone to fight for his country , as he believed, and there was now no grain left in the country to be ground. Officers who had called at her door, remarked at the brave attempt at cheerfulness which so manifestly struggled with her sorrow, and treated her grief with deterence. For this delicately nurtured girl was living alone in the midst of war; battles had raged around her very dwelling: She was entirely at the mercy of those whom she had taught to believe were her deadly enemies, and who held her husband and brother prisoners in Fort Delaware, taken while fighting in the Confederate army, the brother being until long after this time, supposed to be dead. Her only companion was a little girl, perhaps ten years old, her niece. There this young woman and this child were waiting in their anxiety and desolation, waiting and praying for peace. 

       We should hardly expect the practice of active, laborious, gratuitous benevolence under such circumstances; but we shall see. It is not known how Mrs. Van Metre learned that a Union officer was dying of wounds and neglected in the house of her neighbor, but no sooner had she made the discovery than all of her womanly sympathy was aroused. As she would have longed to have her husband treated or her brother under similar circumstances, so she at once resolved to treat their foe. She would not be moved by the sneers and taunts which were sure to come, but she would have him at her house and save him if she could. 

       The lieutenant had now been neglected for a day or two longer; he had resigned himself to death, when this good woman entered his chamber and with kindly words called back his spirit from the mouth of the grave. 

       She had been allowed to keep an apology for a horse, so old and broken-winded and rheumatic that he was not worth stealing, and also a rickety wagon. With the assistance of a neighbor whose color permitted him to be humane, she carried the sufferer to her house, and at last found himself in a clean comfortable bed, his wounds washed and his bandages cleansed, and best of all his wants anticipated by a gentle female tenderness that inspired him with sweet thoughts of his home, his family, and his life even yet perhaps to be regained. 

       The physician of the neighborhood, a kind old gentleman, was at once summoned from a distance of several miles, and uniting personal sympathy with professional zeal, he promised his daily attendance upon the invalid. The chance was still but a slender one, so much had been endured and so little vigor remained, yet those two good people determined to expend their utmost endeavors in the almost desperate attempt to save the life of an enemy. 

       And they succeeded. The details of convalescence are always uninteresting; it is enough to say that Bedell lay for many days wrestling with death, but at last he began to mend, and from that time his improvement was rapid. But although Mrs. Van Metre and the good doctor were ably to supply the Lieutenant's most pressing needs, still much more than they could furnish were needed for the comfort of the invalid, and even for the proper treatment of his wounds. 

       No stimulants could be obtained except the vilest applejack, and the necessity for them seemed absolute; no clothing was to be had, and he was still in his bloody garments of blue; delicate food was needed, but the impoverished Virginia larder had none but what was simple and coarse. 

       At Harper's Ferry, however, was a depot of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and stores in abundance. Someone must undertake a journey thither. It was a long day's ride to make the distance and return, and success was by no means assured even if the storehouse could be reached. It was in the charge of strangers and enemies. The Lieutenant was too feeble to write and even if he had been able to do so there was no way to authenticate his signature. But a woman would be far more likely to succeed than a man. And in fact no man would be allowed to pass within the limits of the garrison encircling Harper's Ferry. So it came about that the feeble Rosinante and the rattling wagon and the brave-hearted solitary driver made the dangerous journey, and brought back a feast of good things for the sufferer. 

       The picket had been seduced by her eloquence to send her to headquarters, under charge of a guard, which watched her carefully as a probable spy. The General in charge had seen fit to allow her to carry away such trifling articles as the commission people had been willing to give; and although the chances were even that the gifts would be used in building up some wounded rebel, still the earnestness and apparent truthfulness of her entreaty for relief overbore all scruples; the old fashioned wagon was loaded with the wished for supplies, and the suspicious guard escorted the cargo beyond the lines. The trip was thereafter repeated week by week, and when letters were at length received in answer to those deposited by the fair messenger, postmarked among the Green Mountains, her triumph was complete, and her draft good for anything the Sanitary treasurer contained. The only lingering doubt was in regard to the enormous amount of whiskey the invalid required. Mrs. Van Metre, however, explained it was needed for diplomatic as well as medicinal purposes. Of course, it had been bruited about among the neighbors that the miller's wife was nursing a Federal officer. In that region now abandoned to the rule of Mosby and his men, concealment was essential. Therefore, the old men who had heard of the convalescent must be taken into confidence and pledged to secrecy, a course rendered possible only by the liberal use of spiritus frumenti. Under the influence of such liquor as had not been guzzled in the valley since the peaceful days of Buchanan, the venerable rascals were easily convinced that such a shattered life as that of the Lieutenant could not greatly injure their beloved Confederacy. 

       Five weeks after Bedell was wounded, Sheridan's army was encamped on Cedar Creek. The Lieutenant now greatly needed his valise from the army baggage wagons. Therefore a journey of 20 miles up the valley was planned, which brought our heroine and her little niece to the army again, with a few words traced by the maimed right hand of her charge as her credentials. Her simple story awakened the profoundest wonder and surprise among the Lieutenant's former comrades, as they learned that their favorite who was dead was alive again, and felt how much true heroism her modest word concealed. She had plainly abandoned herself for weeks to the care of a suffering enemy, and yet she did not seem to realize that she deserved any credit for so doing, or that every woman would not have done the same. She was loaded with the rude attentions of the camp, and spent the night comfortably (from a military point of view) in a vacant tent at Winchester, but she obtained it on her return. 

       The next day break found Getty's division fighting the battle of Cedar Creek. Amid the mounting in hot haste and the thronging confusion of the mornings surprise, General Getty found time to commit his terrified quests to the care of an orderly, who by a circuitous route conducted them safely out of battle. 

       While the army was near Berryville, in September, some of General Getty's staff officers had called upon Mrs. Van Metre and had persuaded her to prepare for them a meal or two from the army rations, there being a magnetism in female cookery that the blades of the staff were always craving. In her visit to the army just mentioned, she had learned that one of those casual acquaintances had fallen at the former battle of the Opequon, and that his body was still lying some where on that wide battlefield. Seizing the earliest opportunity after her return, she personally searched all through the territory between Opequon Creek and Winchester, amid the carrion and the graves, until she found at last the rude board with its almost obliterated inscription that fixed the identity of the too scantily covered corpse. Shocked at the sight, for the rain had exposed the limbs and the crows had mangled them, she procured a coffin and laborers from Winchester and had the remains decently interred in the cemetery there at her own expense; Then she addressed a letter to his friends giving them the information which she possessed, and they subsequently recovered the relics, thanking God and their unknown benefactor. 

       After a long period of careful nursing, varied only by her weekly journey to Harper's Ferry for letters and supplies, the prudent doctor at last gave his consent that Bedell should attempt the journey home. Armed now with a pair of sanitary crutches, he doubted, not that he could make his way if he could once reach the Union lines, but the difficulty of getting to Harper's Ferry cost him much anxiety. Though at various times forty guerillas together had been in and about the house where he lay, the careful watch and care of his protector had thus far kept them in ignorance of his presence. This journey was, however, likely to prove even more difficult to manage. At length one of the toddy drinking neighbors while relating his trials and losses chanced to mention the seizure by our troops, of a pair of his mules months before, and the fact that a negro had since seem them in the Martinsburg corral. A happy thought struck the Lieutenant; he at once assured the old gentlemen that if he could only be placed (what was left of him) in safety at the Ferry the mules would be returned. The promise might perhaps be considered rash, seeing that Martinsburg was twenty-five miles from Harper's Ferry, under a different commander; that it was decidedly unusual to restore property seized from the enemy for government use; that the chattels were long ago far up the valley, and especially that Bedell could not have, in any event, the faintest shadow of authority in the promise. But the old man jumped at the offer and the bargain was struck. 

       It was decided that Mrs. Van Metre should accompany the Lieutenant home, both for his sake, as he was months from recovery, and for her own, as she had now lived for years in unwanted destitution and anxiety, while a quiet comfortable home was thenceforth assured to her by her grateful charge until the return of peace; and who knew if she might (not) in some way regain her own husband, as she restored anothers? 

       So the party was made up and the journey commenced. The officer was carefully hidden in a capacious farm wagon, under an immense heap of straw, and though two marauding parties were met during the day, the cheerful smile and the well known jolly farmer disarmed suspicion. The escape was successful. The clumsy vehicle drew up before headquarters at Harper's Ferry and Bedell was saluted once more by a sentinel, as he dotted his hat to the flag he had suffered for, headed the procession to the General's room. 

       The unique party told its own story. The tall Lieutenant emanciated, staggering on his unaccustomed crutches, the shrinking woman, timid in the presence of authority, though so heroic in the presence of death, and the old Virginian aghast at finding himself actually in the lion's den, but with the burden of an anxious longing written on his wrinkled face--each character so speaking, the group needed only this simple intoduction: "General, this man has brought me in and wants his mules!" 

       General Stephenson, warm hearted and sympathetic, comprehended the situation at once. He made the party seat themselves before him and tell all their story. He fed them at this table and lodged them in his quarter. He telegraphed for a special leave of absence for the officer, and secured free transportation for both him and his friend, and finally, most surprising of all good fortune, he sent the Venerable charioteer to Martinsburg, the happy bearer of a message that secured the restoration of his long-eared quadrupeds. 

       On the next day Bedell and Mrs. Van Metre went on by rail to Washington, where of course everyone treated them kindly and gave them all possible assistance. When the paymaster had been visited and all preparations made for their journey north, it was determined to make an effort to secure the release of the rebel prisoner. So it came about that the quasi-widow and the crippled officer called together upon Secretary Stunton. The busiest of all men found time to hear their story, and despite the "stoney heart" attributed to him by his enemies, he was deeply affected by the touching tale, and the ocular demonstration of its truth in the person of the wounded soldier. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he gave the order requested, earned by acts that few women would have dared; and the couple with glad hearts, crossing the street to the office of the Commissary General of Prisoners, presented the document to the clerk in charge to be vised. But here another difficulty arose. Someone had blundered, and on searching the records of the office, the required name could not be found. The cruel report was made that no such prisoner had been taken. 

      Nevertheless, Mrs. Van Metre's information had been direct and her conviction of some mistake was sure. They laid their case before General Hitchcock, then in charge of that office, and again the story was argument enough. With trembling hands the old gentlemen endorsed the order: "The commanding officer at Fort Delaware will release any prisoner the bearer may claim as her husband." 

       The prison barracks were quickly reached. The commandant caused the thousands of grizzly captives to be paraded. File after file was anxiously, oh how anxiously scanned by the trembling woman, and when the circuit was almost completed, when her sinking heart was almost persuaded that death instead of capture had indeed been the fate of the one she loved, she recognized his face despite his unkempt hair and tattered garment, and fell upon the neck of her husband as he stood in the weary ranks. 

       A few days more and the two united families were at rest in Bedell's New England home. 

P.S. This home was on North Hill in the town of Westfield, Vt.

[Source: Town of Westfield In Review, 1776-1976; Jeanne C. Beaulieu]
Article and Photo and Engraving provided by Tom Dunn.
Graphics by Ishinan.