The first to fall for North Carolina
He was only 19. Fate or plain bad luck had brought him to a fight at Big Bethel Church in Virginia, in June of 1861.
The young man had enlisted back in April, less than a week after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Tar Heel State had not initially joined the Confederacy, but that all changed after those first shots were fired across Charleston Harbor. So, Henry Lawson Wyatt went off to war with the Edgecombe Guards.
The teen had been preparing for a career as a carpenter in Tarboro. One wonders if he, like so many others, thought all this trouble would be over pretty quick. Better to get in it now rather than risk missing out on all the excitement that comes with war. There would be plenty of time to learn carpentry.
Henry was one of 88 privates in the Edgecombe unit. It had nine noncoms and four commissioned officers. This group eventually became Company A of the First Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers.
Before long, the Old North State had ten regiments in the field. Eventually, because they had been the first to enlist and because of what was about to happen, Henry and his comrades would earn a distinctive nickname: the Bethel Regiment.
June 10, 1861 fell on a Monday. The First North Carolina was in Virginia near a place called Big Bethel Church, not far from Hampton and Newport News.
Things started early that morning, around 3 a.m. The First took up the advance and got into a fight with a group of Massachusetts troops moving down from Fortress Monroe. On the battlefield was a house. Inside were some of those Massachusetts soldiers.
An officer decided it would be a good idea to burn them out. So, out went a call for volunteers. And, on that Monday morning in 1861, Private Henry Lawson Wyatt and four comrades answered that call.
Their task required the five to cross a field that may have been as long as two football fields. Many times, over the following four years, men in blue or gray would be ordered to advance across some long, deadly field. It seems unreal today, but it was commonplace and expected of soldiers in the 1860s. So, Henry and his fellow soldiers headed for that house.
I don’t know how far he advanced. I don’t know what his thoughts were as he undertook this mission. Maybe he thought about his family back in North Carolina, or a sweetheart left behind in Tarboro. Or perhaps there was a hope of promotion if he and his comrades succeeded. None of it really matters anymore. What matters is that shots were fired from somewhere along the Federal line. And what matters more is that one of those shots slammed into the head of Henry Lawson Wyatt.
The young man fell on on his back. Three of his fellow volunteers were wounded. Eventually, a shell hit the house that Private Lawson and his comrades had tried to burn. The Battle of Bethel Church ended after about two hours, and the Federals retreated. Henry clung to life for a while, but he never opened his eyes again. He never spoke another word. Nor heard another sound. He died that night.
Henry was the battle’s only Confederate fatality. For years he was thought to have been the first Southern soldier to die in battle, although that’s disputed now. But he was the first soldier from North Carolina who died in combat. Thirty-five thousand North Carolinians followed over the next four years.
Traditional studies hold that as many as 40,000 Tar Heels died in the Civil War. To be the first fatality is a terrible fate. Perhaps the only worse one is to be the last. But does it matter? Each is just as dead. Each leaves behind a grieving family and friends, and, possibly, an epitaph. Henry Lawson Wyatt. A 19 year old kid. A mother’s son who wanted to become a carpenter. Dead.