Thursday, June 09, 2011

150 Years Ago: Big Bethel

A sketch by Thomas Nast (died 1902, over 100 y...Image via Wikipedia

On June 10, 1861, the battle of Big Bethel took place near the tip of the Virginia Peninsula.  If it had occurred later in the war it would hardly be worth mentioning, but at this early stage -- almost two months to the day after Fort Sumter was fired upon -- it was the first significant battle of the Civil War with 5500 men engaged on both sides.

When Virginia seceded, almost all of the Federal property in the state was quickly seized by the state authorities, but the small regular U.S. Army garrison at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula was quickly reinforced.  The fort would remain in Union hands throughout the war.

Major General Benjamin Butler was put in command of the garrison in May 1861.  He quickly expanded his position, occupying the towns of Newport News and Hampton, Virginia.

Before he became temporarily unemployed, Robert E. Lee responded to this threat by sending Colonel John Magruder to the area.  Magruder set up a forward base about eight miles from Hampton at Little Bethel Church and a well-fortified position a little further north at Big Bethel Church behind Brick Kiln Creek.  Magruder's small Virginia force was soon increased to 1500, and they quickly got to work harassing Butler's pickets and patrols.

Butler was especially worried that these Confederates could disrupt his lines of communication with his forces at Newport News and Hampton.  He worked up a plan for a night march and a surprise attack at dawn with an aide, Major Theodore Winthrop.  The plan proved to be too much for the green troops and officers to pull off.

Brigadier General Ebenezer Peirce commanded the assault.  Two columns were to converge near the enemy's position, drive them back and burn the churches.  To avoid confusion in the dark, units were given white patches or rags to wear on their left arms.  They were also to yell "Boston" as a watchword.

Colonel Adam Duryée's 5th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment led the assault.  As they approached the enemy position, the 7th New York and the 3rd New York met where two roads merged into one.  A friendly fire situation quickly developed; the 7th New York thought they had met up with the enemy and began firing at the other regiment of New Yorkers.  Twenty-one men in the 3rd were wounded, two mortally.

The element of surprise was gone.  The Confederates at Little Bethel quickly withdrew to the fortifications at Big Bethel.  Meanwhile, Duryée's men, thinking the Confederates were behind them attempting to cut them off from their comrades, withdrew.  A Union officer who arrived at the scene at dawn found disorganized men wandering around, "looking more like men enjoying a huge picnic than soldiers awaiting battle."

The attack was finally launched, but Peirce, who had never led men in battle before, had trouble coordinating the frontal assault on the Confederate works.  The piecemeal attacks were beaten back.

Winthrop led a detachment through a swamp to assault the Confederate left flank.  Winthrop waved his sword, shouted, "Come on boys, one more charge and the day is ours!," and was immediately shot through the heart.  This assault was beaten back by the Confederates.  The 5th New York crossed a little further downstream and tried another assault on the Confederate left.  They found themselves unsupported and cut off and quickly withdrew.  Colonel D. H. Hill, commanding the Confederate forces on the left, later reported that his men "were all in wild glee, and seemed to enjoy it as much as boys do rabbit-shooting."

The Union forces finally called it off; they withdrew back to Newport News and Hampton.  Total Federal casualties were 18 killed, 60 wounded, and one missing. The other notable Union death (besides Winthrop, an accomplished writer and poet) was Lieutenant John Greble.  He was the first West Point graduate and the first U.S. Regular Army officer killed in the war.

Within hours of the battle, Magruder withdrew the Confederate forces to a stronger position at Yorktown.  Only one Confederate soldier was killed; Private Henry Wyatt of the 1st North Carolina Regiment was the first Confederate enlisted man to be killed in the war.  Seven were wounded.

A sketch of the battlefield can be found here.
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