The following article appears in the December 12, 1968 issue of the Newport Daily Express. It was provided to the Journal by Dr. Ray Griffin of Glover, a distant relative of the subject of this article, Civil War veteran Henry Bedell.
by Barbara Wells
An article entitled “The Woman Who Would Not Tell,” in the December issue of the Reader’s Digest, has excited a number of local readers because a central figure in the real life drama of the American Civil War era was born in this area and once lived here.
The story, which concerns a Union soldier, Lieutenant Henry Bedell of Westfield, Vermont, and the young wife of a Confederate officer who saved his life, brought back to a Newport woman a vivid memory of the Union veteran who survived severe war wounds and amputation of a leg to resume life in his native Green Mountain State at the war’s close.
Mrs. Dora Hall, a resident of Newport for many years, and whose memory is very long and keen, recalls that in her youth she often saw the tall, one-legged Bedell in Newport where he spent his later years, first at Pender’s Point, present site of the Prouty Memorial Beach, and then on Coventry Street. In fact, Colonel Bedell, as he was later known, died in the Coventry Street home, and is buried in the East Main Street cemetery.
During his residence in Newport he held a position with the U.S. Customs for a time. He later served the public as an auctioneer, getting about on one limb, the other resting on a stub crutch.
Mrs. Hall says that she first heard the thrilling story of the Yankee soldier’s wartime experiences from the late Oscar C. Miller of Newport who, like Bedell, was born in Westfield, resided there in his youth, and was a veteran of the War Between the States.
Mr. Miller, who was one of the founders of the Prouty & Miller lumber firm here, was a personal friend of the Civil War lieutenant, and when called upon to speak to a Newport audience told the story of his friend and the lieutenant’s courageous southern benefactor.
Mrs. Hall remembers that as Mr. Miller related the dramatic story his listeners were deeply moved by the tale of Lieutenant Bedell, born in the year 1834 in Westfield, the son of Farmer Bedell, a lineal descendant of ancestors who came to this country on the Mayflower.
The story so impressed Mrs. Hall that she always remembered it, and some years later did a review of a book written around the incident. Titled An Unknown Heroine, the book was written by L.E. Chittenden, who wrote that before he was 21, Henry Bedell, an industrious youth, had earned enough money to buy 100 acres of land on which he erected a log cabin, and to which he brought a Vermont bride. Three children were born to the couple; they also found the means to adopt a fourth child.
About this time the Civil War broke out, and Bedell enlisted in Co. D, 11th Vermont Volunteers. His regiment was mustered into service and sent to Washington, where it became a regiment of heavy artillery, and was eventually dispatched into the Shenandoah Valley.
Now, with a call for recruits for the Confederate Army, one J.L.E. Van Metre, owner of a beautiful estate in the Shenandoah Valley, was one of the first to enlist, leaving his wife, Bettie, alone with a small niece and two elderly slaves, Uncle Dick and his wife, to care for the estate. In the summer of 1864 Van Metre was taken a Union prisoner.
Meanwhile, early in 1864, under command of General Sheridan, the whole Union command was moved out of Harper’s Ferry to camp at Clifton, a large plantation near the Van Metre estate in Berryville, Virginia.
When Union officers found the brave Bettie Van Metre alone to guard her home, they established a guard, which was on constant watch over her. Grateful for this courtesy from the enemy, she helped them prepare their food and meals, earning the high respect and esteem of the Union officers and men.
Then on September 13, 1864, the striking Civil War episode involving Lieutenant Bedell began to materialize. In a skirmish five miles from the Union camp, Bedell was struck by a shell, which tore his hand. As he fell a second shot shattered his leg, and he was removed to a field hospital where the leg was amputated. Doctors, believing he could not survive the ordeal, decided to do nothing about the mutilated hand, and he was moved to a bare farmhouse where the Asburys, an old couple, had taken squatters rights. Placed on a bed of straw on the floor in a room barren of a single piece of furniture, the wounded man rallied through the night, and underwent surgery on the hand the next day. Once again, due to superior strength and health, Bedell rallied. However, unable to be moved with the other wounded to Harper’s Ferry, Bedell was left with a soldier to nurse him, with quantities of food and liquor and a generous sum of money.
Upon the departure of the company, however, the orderly deserted the wounded man, reporting at headquarters that the lieutenant had died. The Asburys, too, absconded, taking with them all the food and provisions left for the wounded man.
Surviving for two days and nights without food or care, the Yankee soldier was found by the Van Metre slave, who informed Mrs. Van Metre of his discovery. Hastening to the wounded man, she sent for the family physician.
With the lieutenant’s sole chance for life dependent on medicines and supplies available only from the Union Army, Bettie Van Metre, ignoring the doctor’s reminder of the penalty for aiding the enemy, decided to cross the enemy lines to procure the needed supplies.
Starting out in the middle of the night with an aged horse, the only one left on the estate once renowned for its thoroughbreds, and a broken down wagon, the valiant woman arrived seven hours later at the Union picket. Taken before General Stevenson, she was recognized by some of the Union men who had been stationed near the Van Metre estate.
The general, impressed with her courage, and convinced of her honesty, granted the needed supplies, and Bettie Van Metre, delaying her trip until dark, returned home, completing the first of many such journeys to the post for surgical dressings and medicine.
After days and nights of faithful nursing, Lieutenant Bedell gained sufficiently to be moved on a stretcher, again by dark, to the Van Metre home a third of a mile away.
By October he was well on the road to recovery, and as he convalesced, his one thought and vow was to restore James Van Metre to his loved ones, a purpose deepened by a dream he had the first night spent in the Van Metre home. In this dream, so real he believed it to be true, Bedell saw Van Metre with other Confederate prisoners of war in a camp over which flew a hospital flag. So intensely did Bedell try to learn the name and location of the camp that he awakened, but upon learning of the dream Bettie Van Metre, who had not heard from her husband in months, was convinced that he lived.
Bedell began to make plans to escape to the Union lines, and persuaded Mrs. Van Metre to accompany him.
Traveling in a hay wagon made from scrap lumber, with Lieutenant Bedell concealed in a crate covered with hay on the wagon floor, the party set out for the Union camp. Small vents had been left to facilitate the lieutenant’s breathing and vision, and a rifle and ammunition were placed at his side.
At first the trip was uneventful, but about one-half mile from their objective, they were attacked by two men who tried to rob and kill them. With two well-aimed shots Bedell ended the careers of the two thieves, and the small party proceeded safely to the Union lines.
After reaching their objective, Mrs. Van Metre, overcome by fatigue and worry, was taken seriously ill and Bedell, who had gone beyond his strength and endurance, was also in serious condition. The lieutenant’s family was summoned from Vermont, and Mrs. Bedell arrived to nurse them back to health.
Health restored, they left for Washington to appeal to Secretary of War Stanton for the release of Mrs. Van Metre’s husband and brother; these requests were granted. After a search of many weeks through prison camps and hospitals, Van Metre was finally located, and they all returned to the Bedell farm in Westfield, where the Southerners remained until after the war.
For her heroic action in saving Lieutenant Bedell, the Vermont Legislature passed a resolution thanking Bettie Van Metre for her efforts in behalf of the “Green Mountain Boy” and she was given a reception as the governor presented the honor to her.
Then, some years later, on a return visit to the Bedell home in Newport following the death of her husband, Mrs. Van Metre was honored by another Vermont governor, G.A. Prouty of Newport, who took the distinguished southern lady on her first automobile ride.
And now today, more than a century after the close of the epic struggle between the states, and with all participants in the drama dead for many years, Newporters are reading of their heroism.
Perhaps there are others who may recall stories about the incident. It is said that the late Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Buchanan, parents of Mrs. Wallace Riegel, Clyde Street, were neighbors of the Bedells on Coventry Street, and in appreciation of kindnesses to them, were often presented gifts of war relics, one of which is reported to have been the basket in which Mrs. Van Metre smuggled food to Lieutenant Bedell when he was hidden in her home.
Although the Van Metres faced social ostracism when they returned to their native Virginia following the war, a newspaper report stated that Mrs. Van Metre “lived to see the rancors of war swept away, as evidenced by the number of prominent Virginians who attended her funeral following her death in Berryville at the age of 80.”