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'Betty' Van Metre - Vermont's Rebel Heroine

"Are you a Union woman," he asked?

"I am not," she replied. "I am a Southern woman to the last drop of my blood. My husband and brothers are Confederate soldiers and my husband is now in the hands of your people a prisoner of war. I hope and pray that the South may yet be victorious and your Northern army defeated."

Contrast that with the following:

A young Shenandoah Valley farmer's wife, told of a wounded Union soldier near death, went to him, cared for him, called her doctor in to treat him, took him into her home, and nursed him back to health over a period of about two months. She made several perilous trips into enemy-held territory to get medicine and supplies to treat him. She bribed the old men in her neighborhood with liquor to keep them from telling authorities about this wounded Union officer. When Bedell was well enough to travel, she took him back to his brother-officers, went to Washington with him, searched for and found her husband then went back to Bedell's Green Mountain home with him and his family for the remainder of the war.

Two different women, you would probably conclude, but you'd be wrong.

Meet Elizabeth 'Betty' Keyser Van Metre, a native of the Luray Valley. She celebrated her first anniversary in Berryville, Clarke County, Virginia, on the day the shelling of Fort Sumter began. Within weeks of celebrating her second anniversary, Betty's husband went off to war, enlisting in the 11thVirginia Cavalry. Two years later, he had been a prisoner of war for several months, but she hadn't heard from him for quite a while. Two brothers, members of the 33rdVirginia Infantry, the famous Stonewall Brigade, had been captured at Gettysburg, both had been wounded and taken prisoner, one would die of his wounds.

But when her faithful colored servant told her about Vermont Lieutenant Henry Bedell, severely wounded and abandoned by his unit, with an amputated leg and near death, she took him into her home and nursed him back to health. She made several perilous trips to Harper's Ferry to get medicines and supplies that her doctor said he required if the man were to live. Berryville to Harper's Ferry, forty miles round-trip, wasn't exactly a piece of cake under normal conditions. Add a rickety wagon, a tired-out old horse, and bush-whackers, murderers and thieves along the route, not to mention traveling into enemy territory and telling them she was a rebel, but convincing them she wasn't a spy, and you get a pretty good idea of the kind of convictions this courageous young woman had.

Prior to meeting Bedell, Betty had gone to Gettysburg after the battle to nurse two wounded brothers. Both would end up in prison camps, one released early and sent home to die from his wounds. She had been visiting Harper's Ferry on a regular basis, because that was the only way she got letters from her imprisoned husband.

She said she "never did hate the Yankees, what [I] hated was the war"" That is how she justified caring for her husband and brothers, and being able to nurse Henry Bedell back to health. Years later, too many years later, the State of Vermont finally recognized their Rebel Heroine for rescuing Henry Bedell "notwithstanding all she had suffered because of the war." Immediately after the publicity surrounding the State recognizing her efforts, when asked if she had ever written of her experiences, she said no, "I " had quite enough thinking of all I had to go through without writing about it." But there probably was another reason too. Later still Betty's great-grandnephew, Dr. Frank Brumback, became interested in her story but was rebuffed by family members when he asked questions. "The majority of her family made it clear they did not approve of her actions at the time and again when she was honored by the state of Vermont. She was misunderstood and unappreciated by her family" and her neighbors. Its time to change that.

Selected Bibliography.

Armstrong, Richard L. 11th Virginia Cavalry. Lynchburg VA: H. E. Howard Inc., 1989.

Bedell, Henry E. Diary, January-September 1864. Personal collection of Ed Italo.

Chittick, Geraldine F., editor. In The Field: Dr. Melvin J. Hyde, Surgeon, 2nd Vermont Volunteers. Newport, Vt.: Vermont Civil War Enterprises, 2000.

Chittenden, Lucius Eugene. An unknown heroine; an historical episode of the war between the states. New York: George H. Richmond, & Co., 1894.

Kercheval, Samuel A. A History of the Valley of Virginia. Strasburg Va.: Shenandoah Publishing Co. 1925. (reprint of 1833 edition).

Koontz, Lowell L. History of the Descendants of John Koontz. Parsons WV: McLain Printing Co. 1979.

Ledoux, Thomas J., editor. Quite Ready to be Sent Somewhere: The Civil War Letters of Aldace Freeman Walker, First Heavy Artillery, Eleventh Vermont Volunteers. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing Company, spring 2002.

Lester, Janice Keyser. "Silence Made Woman an Unspoken Heroine."Readers Digest, December 1968.

Reidenbaugh, Lowell. 33rd Virginia Infantry. Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, Inc. 1897.

Van Metre, Elizabeth Keyser. Letter to Mr. Harold Rugg, in Vermont, February 18, 1915.

-----. Typescript of a letter to a 'Mr. Cheney,' in Vermont, 1914.

Van Metre, Val. "Civil War heroine's home still stands." Retrospect. Berryville, Va.: Clarke Courier. Thursday, July 4, 1991.

Vermont State Legislature. Resolution of January 29, 1915, commending Mrs. Bettie Van Metre, of Berryville, Va., for her care of Lieutenant Henry E. Bedell, of Westfield, Vt., after he was injured during the Civil War.

Walker, Aldace Freeman. "A Rebel Heroine," Military Essays and Recollections, Vol. 4. Chicago, Il.: MOLLUS, 1907.

---. A True story of the Civil War. Chicago: S. Harris & Co., 1901.

---. The Vermont Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley, 1864. Burlington, VT: Free Press Association, 1869

The following is the Betty's obituary probably published in the Washington Star newspaper.

Colorful Civil War Romance Ends in Death of Woman, at 81.

Mrs. Bettie Van Metre Saved Northerner, Won South's Hate.

Later Received Honor From Vermont for Heroic Action.

The last chapter of a romance that had its inception in the closing days of the Civil War, a story of how a Virginia belle faced bitter criticism and virtual ostracism because she wouldn't desert a wounded Yankee lieutenant who had been left in an abandoned farmhouse to die of starvation, was written in Berryville, Va., last week, when the heroine died at the age of 81.

She was Mrs. Betty Van Metre, a member of an old Southern family whose sons fell I the service of Robert E. Lee. Her act of mercy, always unrecognized by her friends in the South, was finally rewarded by the State of Vermont in whose legions the young lieutenant was fighting when he was shot down. Since then Mrs. Van Metre's heroism has become the inspiration for several works of literature by prominent authors.

Slave Brought Word

Mrs. Van Metre was scarcely 20 years old and a bride of a few months when the incident that was later to surround her with glory occurred. She was living on her husband's plantation, near Berryville when a faithful old slave, who had refused to accept emancipation, crept into her room one day and whispered that "dar was a Yankee ossifer er' dyin' for want of water and bread in de next plantation."

Accompanied by her faithful family retainer, she drove to the farm, which had been deserted when its owner hurried to the aid of the Confederacy and found Lieut. Henry E. Bedell, of the 11thVermont Light Infantry, on the verge of an agonizing death, locked in a barren chamber on the top floor of the crumbling homestead.

Only a few months before her own brother had died before the Northern guns at Gettysburg and her husband and another brother had been send to Fort Delaware in captivity. Brushing aside the grief the war had brought into her own home, she had the room made more comfortable and called in her family physician to attend the man.

Defied Many Dangers.

For two weeks the young Southern girl nursed the Yankee officer night and day. Often she had to ride 20 miles to Harpers Ferry through dangerous country for medicine and surgical dressings. Finally she was rewarded by seeing the enemy lieutenant recover to the point where he could begin his journey back home. Fearing he would be captured and killed by the guerrillas, she smuggled him out of the Confederate lines herself.

Upon reaching Washington, Lieut. Bedell told Secretary of War Stanton of how his life had been saved by the young girl and as a reward her husband and brother were ordered released from prison immediately. She and her husband then accompanied Lieut. Bedell to his home in Vermont and remained there until the close of the war, when she returned to her own plantation to face virtual ostracism for years.

Ten years ago the Legislature of Vermont passed a resolution thanking Mrs. Van Metre for her courageous efforts to save the life of a Vermont officer. She was given a tumultuous reception throughout New England when she went North to receive the resolution from the hands of the governor and was accorded State receptions in many large cities, including Boston.

Since then, all the participants in that Civil War romance have died. Mrs. Van Metre's husband died four years ago, and last Wednesday she too passed away. Mrs. Van Metre was well known in Washington and has a nephew living here, William N. Keyser of 4429 Ninth street, whom she frequently visited. The wounds of the war had well healed by the time Mrs. Van Metre died and her funeral was attended by prominent people from all over Virginia.

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux