The Woman Who Would Not Tell
By Janice Keyser Lester
On the shelf in my kitchen sits a small, antique coffee-grinder that came from an old house in Virginia. A drawer in its base contains a scrap of paper covered with faded writing. The writing is faded because the ink was made of berry juice. And the paper is flimsy because it was folded small enough to fit inside a brass button. Part of the message is still legible. Dated September 14, 1864, it begins: "Dear Bettie, I have a chance to send you a note by concealing it from the Yankees…."
It’s a prison-camp letter from a captured Confederate officer to his wife in Virginia, smuggled out by a paroled soldier, delivered to a blue-eyed 20-year-old woman living all alone, except for two former slaves, in the war-torn Shenandoah Valley. The name of the girl was Bettie Van Metre, and during the next two months she was to be the principal figure in one of the most dramatic and little-known episodes of the Civil War. I know the story because I heard it many times from Bettie herself. She was my favorite great-aunt, and she lived to be over 80.
Whenever my family visited Aunt Bettie in the old house in Berryville, Va., I would pester her to tell me the story. I can see myself now, sitting on a hassock, waiting for her to begin, "I never did hate the Yankees. All I hated was the war…."
Bettie Van Metre had good reason to hate war. One of her brothers was killed at Gettysburg, another taken prisoner. Then her husband, James, was captured, and his smuggled letter spoke of illness, harsh treatment, semi-starvation. She did not even know where he was: that portion of his message was illegible.
For more than three years the tide of battle had swept back and forth across the lovely Shenandoah Valley until it was a wasteland of pillaged homesteads and abandoned farms. Gray and Blue forces still clashed fiercely, and roving bands of deserters and guerrillas robbed and murdered. Bettie kept busy during part of each day working with the Berryville Sewing and Nursing Corps, and the elderly Negro couple, "Uncle Dick" Runner and his wife Jennie, were helpful and kind. But the nights were endless.
One sultry day in late September a Federal hospital column halted at a farmhouse about a mile from the Van Metre home. From one of the horse-drawn ambulances, a figure on a bloodstained stretcher was lowered to the ground. Three days earlier, in a savage skirmish preceding the battle of Opequon Creek, a Rebel shell had burst beside 30-year-old Lt. Henry Bedell, Company D, 11th Vermont Volunteers. One iron fragment smashed into his right hand; another tore his left leg so hideously that it had to be amputated at the thigh.
When it became necessary to evacuate the wounded to Harpers Ferry, the doctors knew that Bedell would not survive the agonizing 20-mile ride. To spare him unnecessary suffering, they decided to leave him, attended by a single orderly, at the farmhouse. Abandoned by its owners, the place was now inhabited by a slatternly woman. She accepted without comment the greenbacks offered to pay for his shelter.
He was a strong man, this Vermonter, and a brave one. Before the doctors left, he asked to dictate a final letter to his wife in Westfield, VT. He also requested that his rifle, a Henry repeater, be placed beside him. If any Confederates came and he was conscious, he would use it. He was hidden in an attic room. Then the hospital train moved on.
For two days the woman and the orderly drank and caroused. Despite the soldier’s groans, they never went near him. On the third day, tired of waiting for Bedell to die, they left. But Uncle Dick Runner had seen the wounded man carried into the farmhouse. When the woman and the orderly left, the old Negro ran to summon aid at the Van Metre farm.
Whenever Aunt Bettie told about her first sight of the gaunt bearded man in the stained blue uniform lying in the attic, her nostrils flared. "It was like walking into a nightmare: those awful bandages, that dreadful smell. That’s what war is really like, child: no bugles, no banners. Just pain and filth, futility and death."
To Bettie Van Metre this man was not an enemy; he was a suffering human being. She gave him water and tried to cleanse his dreadful wounds. Then she went out into the cool air and leaned against the house and tried not to be sick.
She knew that she should report the presence of a Union officer to the Confederate authorities. But she also knew that she would not do it. "I kept wondering if he had a wife somewhere, waiting, and hoping, and not knowing – just as I was. It seemed to me that the only thing that mattered was to get her husband back to her."
Slowly, patiently, skillfully, James Van Metre’s wife fanned the spark of life that flickered in Henry Bedell. Three times each day she climbed to the attic room with food as she could find. Of drugs and medicines she had almost none, and she was not willing to take any from the meager supplies at the Confederate hospital. But now there was no turning back. Bedell told her that he would not be taken alive. "I can still shoot," he said grimly, "with my left hand."
As his strength returned, Bedell told Bettie about his wife and children in Westfield, and listened as she told him about her brothers and about James. "I knew his wife must be praying for him," Aunt Bettie would say, "just as I was praying for James. It was strange how close I felt to her, at times."
The October nights in the valley grew cold. The infection in Bedell’s wounds flared up and, in the unheated house, there was increasing risk that he might die of pneumonia. Bettie decided to take him to her own farmhouse. With Uncle Dick and Jennie helping, she moved him at night, to a bed in a hidden loft above the warm kitchen. But the exertion and exposure were too much for the weakened man. By morning he had a high fever. Toward afternoon he was delirious. By nightfall Bettie knew that she must summon help or he would die. After praying for guidance, she wrote a note to her longtime friend and family physician, Dr. Graham Osborne.
Dr. Osborne wasted no time in moral judgements. He examined Bedell, then shook his head. There was little hope unless proper medication could be obtained, and for the people of the Confederacy such medication had ceased to exist. "All right, then," Bettie said. "I’ll get it from the Yankees at Harpers Ferry!"
The doctor told her she was mad. The Union headquarters were almost 20 miles away. Even if she reached them, the Yankees would never believe her incredible story.
"I’ll take proof," Bettie said. In the loft where Bedell lay she found a bloodstained document with the official War Department seal. "This is a record of his last promotion," she said. "When I show it, they’ll have to believe me."
She made the doctor write out a list of the medical items he needed, and early the next morning she was on the road. For five hours she drove, stopping only to rest her horse. Once a ragged figure rose out of a ditch and tried to seize the mare’s bridle. Bettie lashed at him with her whip; the frightened animal reared and bolted, and the man did not pursue. The sun was almost down when she finally stood, shaking with fatigue, before the commanding Federal officer.
Gen. John D. Stevenson listened with steely skepticism. "Madam," he said, "Bedell’s death was reported by his orderly."
"He’s alive," Bettie insisted. "But he won’t be much longer unless he has the medicines on that list."
The general hesitated. "Well," he said finally, "I’m not going to risk the lives of a patrol just to find out. See that Mrs. Van Metre gets the supplies,." He told an aide. He brushed aside Bettie’s thanks. "You’re a brave woman," he said. "Whether you’re telling the truth or not."
With the medicines that Bettie carried to Berryville, Dr. Osborne brought Bedell through the crisis. Ten days later Bedell was hobbling on a pair of crude crutches that Uncle Dick had made for him. But by now rumors of a blue-clad stranger in the Van Metre home were spreading. The talk reached Dr. Osborne, and on his next visit he put it bluntly: "Bettie, you’re in a very dangerous position."
Bedell agreed. "I can’t continue to put you in jeopardy," he said. "I’m strong enough to travel now. And I think I have a plan."
The plan involved striking a bargain with one of Bettie’s neighbors, a Mr. Sam. The crusty old farmer was bemoaning the loss of some mules that he claimed had been stolen by Union troopers. Mr. Sam had a wagon and one remaining mule. If the farmer would agree to deliver Bedell to Union headquarters at Harpers Ferry, he might be able to exchange a crippled Yankee officer for the missing Confederate mules. Reluctantly, the old man allowed himself to be persuaded. Then Bedell confided to Bettie the rest of his plan: she was to go with him. "The war is almost over," he said. "I might be able to help you find you husband." Bettie hesitated, but finally agreed.
Uncle Dick devised a double harness that enabled them to hitch Bettie’s mare alongside Mr. Sam’s remaining mule. Bedell lay down in an old crate filled with hay, his rife and crutches beside him. It was a long, slow journey that almost ended in disaster. Only an hour from the Union lines, two horsemen suddenly appeared. One pointed a pistol, demanding money. The other pulled Mr. Sam from the wagon. As Bettie sat paralyzed, a rifle shot cracked out so close behind her that she felt the muzzle blast. The guerrilla on horseback spun to the ground. A second shot sent the other man sprawling. Bettie watched Bedell lower the rifle and brush the wisps of hay out of his hair. "Let’s keep moving," he said.
At the picket line, the soldiers stared in amazement at the old farmer and exhausted girl. They were further startled when the Union officer with the maimed hand and missing leg rose from his hay-filled box. "All I remember," Aunt Bettie used to say, "was Henry’s face when he saw his own flag and saluted it with his bandaged hand."
Bedell was sent to Washington. There he told his story to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who immediately wrote a letter of thanks to Bettie and signed an order for James’s release. Special rail transportation was furnished to help Bettie search for her husband. It was arranged for Bedell to accompany her.
The search was far from easy. Records showed that a James Van Metre had been sent to a prison camp in Ohio, but when the ragged files of thin, dispirited men were paraded before Bettie, James was not there. A second prison was checked, with the same result. Bettie fought back a chilling fear that her husband was dead. Then at Fort Delaware, near the end of the line, a tall man with sunken eyes in an emaciated face broke the files and stumbled into Bettie’s arms. Bettie held him, tears streaming down her face. And Henry Bedell, standing by on his crutches, wept, too.
The three of them returned by steamer to Washington, thence by rail to Bedell’s home in Vermont. Between the two families, there grew a deep and lasting friendship. Later, when the Bedells had two more children, they named them after their Southern friends. Soon after the war, the Van Metres took the Bedells to their Virginia home as guests. Fifty years later, the Bedells and the Van Metres were still friends. That year the Vermont State Legislature passed a resolution thanking Bettie for her act of mercy. And on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1915, Gov. Charles Winslow Gates of Vermont presided at a banquet at Westfield in Bettie’s honor and presented her with a parchment scroll.
I can still see the flash of Bettie’s blue eyes, still hear her laugh. And sometimes, when the present-day news seems almost unbelievable, I go to the old coffee-grinder and take out the flimsy letter that James wrote her more than a century ago. It reminds me that, no matter how shadowed things may seem, love is stronger than fear, and that acts of kindness often are rewarded in most unexpected ways.Published in "Readers Digest", December 1968.
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