Battle of Big Bethel

June 10, 1861

Editor’s Note:  The Battle of Big Bethel marks the first significant land battle of the Civil War in the state of Virginia. It is also the first significant battle that has appeared in this blog. Now, an editorial decision. In this blog, for reasons of time and space, I cannot recount in-depth every troop movement, regimental foray, battlefield description, etc., from every major battle coming. Instead, I’ll present a summary and direct you to sites and books — and there are hundreds — that recount battles thoroughly. Instead, I want to focus on the more human elements of these events, things that sometimes get lost in what is often called “Great Man” history.  SJ

Early today, General Ben Butler, in command of Union forces at Fortress Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, sent out regiments to scout Confederate positions eight miles away at Big Bethel.


At the recommendation of General Robert E. Lee, who feared the Union occupation of Fortress Monroe, Confederate Colonels John Bankhead Magruder (a noted amateur thespian) and Daniel Harvey Hill had occupied Big Bethel and built reinforcements there. Butler had not real intention of occupying Big Bethel, but he wanted Magruder and Hill gone.

Colonel Theodore Winthrop

Butler’s military secretary, Colonel Theodore Winthrop, devised a plan — complicated for this phase of the war — by which three columns would converge on Big Bethel from different starting points. The plan even included the riverine transport of cannon on barges.


Winthrop wanted the attack on Big Bethel to come off before dawn, and he recognized the danger of the Union columns mistaking each other for enemy in the dark. He organized a recognition plan: the Union soldiers were wear white armbands and, when approached, would respond with the codeword “Boston.”


As men of the 3rd New York and 7th New York regiments, under overall command of Brigadier General Ebenezer W. Pierce, neared each other near Little Bethel, where Magruder had forward detachments, they either failed to give the “Boston” watchword, failed to see each others’ which markings, or both. They opened fire, committing the first “friendly fire” incident of the Civil War. Despite the mishap, the Union troops pressed forward.


Magruder, with intelligence from a free black and word of the exchange of fire, pulled all his troops back into Big Bethel, where the Union troops attacked after sunup. The fight was traditional, with flanking and blocking maneuvers, and a small artillery duel.


Then came the battle’s turning point. Colonel Winthrop, who had designed the attack, thought another push would claim the day. With sword aloft in a classic Civil War rally attempt, Winthrop climbed atop a log and yelled, “Come on boys! One charge and the day is ours!”


A rebel bullet promptly killed him.


Winthrop’s, piled on top of the friendly fire debacle, demoralized the Union troops. They began falling back, and D.H. Hill claimed the day for the Confederacy.


Union forces at Big Bethel numbered  2,500; they lost 18 killed, 53 wounded, and five missing. Confederates had 1,200 involved, with one killed and seven wounded.


In his after-action report, Captain Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, who commanded a company of Zouaves at Big Bethel, poignantly commended one of his men for gallant behavior.

I would also favorably [commend]. . . Private John Dunn, whose arm was shattered by a cannon ball, and who bore himself with the greatest bravery, and who said to Surgeon Gilbert, while amputating his arm, that he could not have lost it in a nobler cause. 

Sources:

For an extensive recounting of the Battle of Big Bethel, check out:
Historynet.com, Battle of Big Bethel

See also:
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 2, pt. 1, pp 77+

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