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
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
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
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.
home was on North Hill in the town of Westfield, Vt.
of Westfield In Review, 1776-1976; Jeanne C. Beaulieu]
Photo and Engraving provided by Tom