A South Carolina transplant to Mississippi, this young doctor and his family moved to Franklin County, Mississippi in 1859, one year after completing his education at the Medical College of South Carolina at Charleston. In less than one year after his arrival his adopted state and his former state became embroiled in a conflict with the same federal government that had been established by his grandfather’s generation in the American Revolution and protected during the Second War of Independence (The War of 1812) by his uncles.
Regardless of why the conflict began or what the political motivations, this twenty-nine year old physician and father of three young children (Richard Wilkinson b. 1853, Perley b. 1855 and John Walters b. 1859) joined his neighbors and in-laws in the first muster of the “Franklin Beauregards” 7th Mississippi Volunteers in May of 1861.
One event occurred while Dr. Bethea was stationed on the Coast that would have made most men quit and go home. His middle child Perley died in November of 1861. Though difficult for any one to handle, it must have been devastating to him, a doctor. Even in this loss he continued to serve and did not lose faith as evidenced by his “standing room only” prayer meetings.
Not only did he serve his entire 12 month service, but because of deaths and illnesses of the other company officers, he resigned in May of 1862 as the 2nd Lt. Commanding of Co. E 7th Regiment Mississippi Infantry. Family records indicate that he came home sick. After his discharge, he and his wife Mary would have another child, Laurette, but she unfortunately also died in January of 1863 at only six months of age.
Little is known of his actual service since he was not what many would consider a fighting man except in the areas of healing the body and fighting for the souls of his “mess mates”. First sergeant and then Lt. Robert Bethea, known as “Rob” by his family and friends, was referred to as Dr. Bethea by his fellow soldiers even after he achieved the rank of 2nd Lt. and was known for “packing the tent” for his “prayer meeting on the Beauregard Street” in camp at Henderson, TN during the time of preparation for the first major conflict of the two armies in the West at Shiloh.
We can only surmise that he actively worked with the regimental surgeons in the regiment during the outbreaks of measles, fever, and chronic diarrhea that plagued the regiment while in Camps of Instruction at Pass Christian and Shieldsboro on the Mississippi coast. Since he was recently graduated from medical college, it is most likely he had little or no surgical experience and was more useful in caring for the sick and preparing medications. In his later years he practiced medicine as well as pharmacy. Today he would most likely be a General Practitioner or an Internist.
He also played an integral part in the spiritual life of his fellow soldiers because we know that he was a strict adherent to God’s word and took every opportunity to witness to his friends, family and neighbors. In later years it was recalled that he never prescribed or prepared or administered a dose of medicine without first asking for the guidance of his Savior.
We know that he had good administrative skills since he was mentioned on two occasions as attending to the acquisition of uniforms or accompanying Captain Parker to the City (New Orleans) in the early months of organization on the coast. Another example of his administrative role is displayed in the only document we have with his signature, a supply requisition in May of 1862 at Corinth. He signed the requisition Lt. R.C. Bethea, Comm’dg Co. E.
That signature alone surely brings the reality of Shiloh to the reader. Here was a self proclaimed “supply preacher”, doctor and family man who had nothing more than basic military training in command of 70-80 men in what would soon be called Chalmer’s “High Pressure Brigade.”
In a brief three-month period the regiment had lost its Colonel to resignation, several Captains to death in battle and from sickness (including his own Captain Parker) and all lieutenants, save himself, in his company. After the reorganization the regiment started basically from scratch and Co. E elected new officers. Partly due to ill health and the understanding that he was not a military leader, Dr. Bethea returned home and was discharged a month later.
For the remainder of the war there is no official record or family documentation on his activities related to the Confederate Army, but we know that he was a physician and probably served the sick and wounded as they returned from the war as well as their families at home.
He and Mary raised six children to adulthood, including my great Grandmother, Martha May (b. 1869) who married a young pharmacist working for her father, William Trawick Griffin, who later followed Dr. Bethea in the Methodist ministry. A daughter Ella Campbell b. 1865 married a Sample, James Elisha “Pike” b. 1872 married Clarmon Elam and Robert Merrick “Mack” b. 1876 who was accidentally electrocuted in 1905. Mack and Pike joined the US Army to fight in the Spanish American War, but never made it to the action before the war had ended.
His legacy was his reputation as an honest, trustworthy and loyal friend to all and a soldier in God’s army who served his community for years both as a doctor and preacher healing bodies and saving souls as he went along his circuit until his death in 1913. His wife Mary Elizabeth LeGette preceded him in death in 1895. They both rest alongside their son, Richard Wilkinson Bethea, in Woodlawn Cemetery in Summit, Mississippi.
RESEARCH NOTE: The photo is believed to have been taken in the late 1880's or 1890's and most probably after the death of his wife, Mary. E. LeGette in 1895.
CREDIT: The photo of Robert C. Bethea and the above biography were contributed by Ron Skellie. CLICK HERE to send Ron email.