previous next

Henry Lawson Wyatt. The First Confederate soldier killed in battle.

It is somewhat remarkable that North Carolina, which was the last State to leave the Union, should have furnished the first soldier to the grim monster who during the next four long and weary years was to claim such a host of victims. Secession was not popular in North Carolina; the State was so thoroughly for the Union that in February, 1861, after seven of the States to the South had seceded, and after delegates from those States had visited North Carolina to induce her to secede, her people refused to call even a convention to consider the question of secession. It was not until President Lincoln called on North Carolina for her quota of troops to crush the seceding States that her determination changed. It then became evident that North Carolina must fight for her Southern sisters, or against them. The dispatch in which the Governor answered the call of President Lincoln voiced the sentiment of the whole people. [64]

Governor Ellis telegraphed that the President could get no troops in North Carolina. The die was cast, a convention was called, and on May 20, 1861, the State left the Union. North Carolina was slow in casting the die. But when this was done she entered the Confederacy with all the elan of Southern character. She was to furnish upwards of one-sixth of the whole number of men in the Confederate army; forty thousand of her sons, more than twice as many as came from any other State, were to fall on the field of battle or to die in prison; and her Twenty-Sixth regiment was to suffer on the first day at Gettysburg a loss of eighty-six and three-tenths per cent., the greatest loss sustained by any one regiment on either side during the war.1 The resources of North Carolina were such and had been so well husbanded by her Governor, Vance, that as far as she was concerned the war might have been continued a [65] year longer, and the first soldier who fell in battle for the Lost Cause was to come from North Carolina.2

This soldier was Henry Lawson Wyatt. He was born in Richmond, Virginia, February 12, 1842. His parents were Isham Belcher and Lucinda N. L. Wyatt. He was apprenticed to the carpenter trade at an early age, and in October, 1856, accompanied his father to North Carolina, and ultimately settled in Tarboro, Edgecombe county. Here he followed his trade and by faithful work and upright deportment made friends in the community. This is the brief narrative of the first nineteen year's of Wyatt's life. From this time his career is a part of the history of a great struggle.

It became evident in April, 1861, that North Carolina must secede or fight the Southern States. Private parties, anticipating the action of the State, were organizing and drilling troops for service. One of the first of these companies was the Edgecombe Guards of Edgecombe county. It was organized April 18, 1861, and on that day Henry Lawson Wyatt enlisted in it as a private soldier. It consisted of eighty-eight privates, nine non and four commissioned officers. Its captain was John Luther Bridgers, of Edgecombe county. Its commanding colonel was Daniel Harvey Hill, of Mecklenburg, who became later a lieutenant-general in the Confederate service. The company became known as A, of what was then the First Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers. This regiment was the first of all the North Carolina troops to organize and take the field. Its term of enlistment was for six months and it was disbanded in the fall of 1861. After the enlistment of ten regiments of State troops, this became known as the Bethel regiment from its first battle, and by this name it has passed into history.

The battle, from which it took its name, was fought Monday, the tenth of June, 1861, at Bethel, or Big Bethel, or Bethel church, situated on the Yorktown road, nine miles from Hampton, Virginia. It had been occupied on the night of the 6th of June by the Confederates from Yorktown. These troops consisted of the First North Carolina regiment, Colonel D. H. Hill commanding, with Lieutenant-Colonel Charles C. Lee as second in command, and four pieces of Randolph's battery. Colonel Hill found a branch of Back river in his front and encircling his right flank. On his left was a dense and [66] almost impenetrable wood except about one hundred and fifty yards of old field. The rear was covered by the road, a thick wood and a narrow cultivated field. The position had the inherent defect of being commanded by an immense open field on which the enemy might be readily deployed. Colonel Hill determined to make an enclosed work. The bridge over the river to his right was commanded by the artillery, an eminence beyond the creek was occupied and a battery put into place. The work of fortification was kept up during the 7th and 8th and on the 9th, which was Sunday, the men worked and prayed by turns, They were aroused at three on Monday to advance on the enemy, but finding him too strong fell back on their entrenchments and awaited his approach. A reinforcement of one hundred and eighty men from the Third Virginia regiment was stationed on the hill on the extreme right. Company G, First North Carolina, later Bethel regiment, was thrown over to protect the howitzer, and Company A, First North Carolina, took post in the dense wood beyond and to the left of the road. The Confederates, about fourteen hundred strong, awaited the enemy in their entrenchments. At 9 A. M. his heavy columns approached rapidly and in good order.

These troops had been sent out from Hampton by Major-General Butler, then commanding in the department of Virginia. They were commanded by Brigadier-General E. W. Pierce, and were about thirty-five hundred strong, consisting of eight hundred and fifty men of the Fifth New York Volunteers, under Colonel Duryea; six hundred and fifty of the Third New York, under Colonel Townsend; seven hundred and fifty from the Seventh New York, Fourth Massachusetts, and First Vermont, under Colonel Bendix, of the Seventh New York, with others from the Second New York, under Colonel Carr, and from the First New York, under Colonel Allen, with a detachment from the Second United States Artillery with several pieces.

The Federals attacked gallantly, but after a fight of two hours and a half were defeated, having lost eighteen killed, fifty-three wounded and five missing. The Confederates lost one killed and eleven wounded. This death happened towards the close of the action. A strong column of Federals, consisting of Massachusetts troops, under the leadership of Major Theodore Winthrop, crossed over the creek, and appeared at the angle on the Confederate left. Here they were opposed by Companies B, C and G, First North Carolina, [67] and by Captain Bridgers, with Company A, who had been recalled from the swamp where he was first posted, and had retaken, in splendid fashion, the work from which Captain Brown, of the artillery, had been compelled to withdraw a disabled gun to prevent its capture. The enemy made a rush, hoping to get within the Confederate lines. They were met by a cool and deliberate fire, but were concealed in part by a house. Volunteers were called for to burn this house. Corporal George Williams, Privates Henry L. Wyatt, Thomas Fallon and John H. Thorpe, of Company A, advanced to perform the duty. Their duty was to charge across an open field, two hundred yards wide, in face of the enemy's lines, and commanded by his sharp-shooters. They behaved with great gallantry, but had advanced only about thirty yards when Wyatt fell, pierced through the brain by a musket ball. The other three were wounded, and remained on the earth until a shell from a howitzer fired the house, and helped to route the enemy. About the same time that private Wyatt fell on the Confederate side, the gallant Major Winthrop fell on the other, one of the first officers to fall in the war. He was a native of Connecticut, and his native State has long since perpetuated his memory.

The conduct of young Wyatt was spoken of in the highest terms by J. B. Magruder, colonel commanding the Confederate forces, by his own regimental commander, D. H. Hill, by George W. Randolph, then in charge of the Richmond Howitzers, and afterwards Secretary of War for the Confederacy, and by all who on that day were witnesses of his gallant but unavailing heroism.

The remains were taken to Richmond and interred in the soldier's section in Hollywood, near where the Confederate monument now is. A board of pine, inscribed with his name, regiment, time and place of death, was his only monument. In 1887 this had rotted away and was found face downward. I do not know that the grave has yet been properly marked.

But the State of North Carolina has shown her sense of duty and gratitude to the young hero. The General Assembly, of 1891, ordered an oil painting (25x30) of Wyatt, to be made at the public expense. The work was executed by Miss Mary A. E. Nixon, an artist of Raleigh, and now adorns the main reading-room of the State Library. Persons who knew the young soldier in life, say that the artist has caught the very spirit of his daring and chivalrous soul. [68] It is also proposed to surmount the Confederate monument in Raleigh, of which the corner-stone was laid in October, 1892, with a statute of Wyatt with an appropriate inscription.3

1 These are the figures of Lieutenant-Colonel Win. F. Fox, in his Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-‘65. Colonel Fox estimates the total forces of the Confederacy at about six hundred thousand men. The military population of North Carolina, in 1861, was one hundred and fifteen thousand three hundred and sixty-nine, the vote cast for governor, in 1860, being one hundred and twelve thousand five hundred and eighty-six. Moore in his Roster of North Carolina troops, puts the total enrollment at one hundred and four thousand four hundred and ninety-eight, but the enumeration of one regiment and of various companies is missing. In November, 1864, Adjutant-General Gatlin reported one hundred and eight thousand and thirty-two men in the Confederate service. This did not include nine thousand nine hundred and three junior and senior reserves, nor three thousand nine hundred and sixty-two home guards and militia officers, nor three thousand one hundred and three troops in unattached companies or in regiments from other States. The total according to this report footed up one hundred and twenty-five thousand men. Colonel Fox says that North Carolina lost forty thousand two hundred and seventy-five men killed in battle, by wounds and disease; South Carolina comes second with seventeen thousand six hundred and eighty-two; Virginia was fourth with fourteen thousand seven hundred and ninety-four. These figures need no comment.

[The records of the office of the Adjutant-General of Virginia, unfortunately were despoiled by Federal authorities, upon their occupation of Richmond, April 3, 1865. Virginia, it should also be remembered was, in different sections occupied at different times by Federal troops during the war. It would be difficult to arrive at her representation by numbers in the Confederate armies, or her losses on Virginia soil and elsewhere. She had in the field her strength from lads to feeble old men—Ed.]

2 It is not claimed that Wyatt was the first Confederate soldier killed. Captain John Q. Marr of the Warrenton (Virginia) Volunteers had been shot by pickets on June 1.


Young Wyatt's mother had been left a widow, and toward the close of the war married a man named Cook, and removed to Bath county, Virginia. She died in 1891. The ambrotype from which the painting, now in the State Library was made, was secured from Mrs. M. P. Clarke, of Richmond. The official reports of the battle of Bethel will be found in Official Records of War of Rebellion, series I, Vol. II, pp. 77-104.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: