A skirmish near the tip of Virginia’s Peninsula served as a harbinger of the four-year bloodbath to come
As Civil War battles go, the engagement at Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, didn’t amount to much. Had it occurred later in the conflict, it would have hardly merited any mention in the newspapers. Regardless, the fray between mostly amateur soldiers marked the first land battle of the conflict and sent a sobering message—that brave young men, lots of brave young men, were going to die in this war. And the campaign leading up to the fight also saw a small but significant development regarding the way Union troops handled runaway slaves.
The situation began to develop in May 1861, when U.S. Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott sent Maj.Gen. Benjamin F. Butler to assume command of the newly created Department of Virginia based at Fort Monroe. Situated on the very tip of the Virginia Peninsula, the fort provided the Federals an important strategic toehold in Confederate territory that the Union Navy could easily resupply via the Chesapeake Bay.
Butler, a lawyer and prewar Democratic politician from Massachusetts, had achieved fame early in the war when he thwarted the secessionist movement in Maryland and helped secure the safety of Washington, D.C. Although he initially protested his assignment on the Peninsula, Butler soon recognized that his new command would bring new opportunities to further his political ambitions.
Butler arrived at Fort Monroe on May 18 and quickly mounted a demonstration of Federal power. On May 23, he ordered Colonel J. Wolcott Phelps’ 1st Vermont Infantry “to reconnoiter” the town of Hampton. During the town’s brief occupation by Union troops, three slaves escaped and took refuge at Fort Monroe. President Abraham Lincoln had ordered his generals to observe the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and return runaways to their owners, but Butler, an abolitionist, slyly proclaimed the runaways “Contraband of War.”
By defining escaped slaves as such, Butler justified keeping them within Union lines, since he claimed they were helping the Rebel war effort. His action was one small step on the road to emancipation. This process helped propel the official goals of the Lincoln administration from not only saving the Union but also ending slavery. “Contraband” quickly became a euphemism for runaway slaves who sought shelter within Yankee lines.
Butler’s main goal was to advance against the poorly organized Confederates on the Peninsula. He occupied Newport News Point on May 27 and built a fortified camp dubbed Camp Butler. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Provisional Army of Virginia, became alarmed at the rapid expansion of Union power, and sent Colonel John B. Magruder to Yorktown to organize Confederate defenses.
Magruder, a hero of the Mexican War, was also a bon vivant who had earned the nickname “Prince John” for his fancy dress and courtly manners. He decided to build his primary line of defense from Mulberry Island on the James River and follow the Warwick River to Yorktown on the York River. He needed time and men, however, to prepare his defensive line against any concerted Union advance. Cavalry commanded by 1st Lt. John Bell Hood and Colonel D.H. Hill’s 1st North Carolina Volunteers reinforced Magruder in late May. Magruder selected the small crossroads of Big Bethel Church as the spot where he would provoke Butler into an attack. It was situated on the Hampton-York Highway, at a bend in the northwestern branch, known as Brick Kiln Creek, of the Back River.
On June 6, 1861, Magruder ordered Major Edgar B. Montague to establish an advanced position at Big Bethel Church with three companies of Virginia volunteers. Hill’s 1st North Carolina reinforced Bethel the next day. Major George Wythe Randolph’s Richmond Howitzers and Lt. Col. W.D. Stuart’s command of four companies of the 15th Virginia Infantry arrived on June 8.
Hill was not pleased when he received orders to occupy Big Bethel. Convinced that he outranked Magruder, he wrote his wife: “Colonel Magruder in command is always drunk and giving foolish and absurd orders. I think that in a few days the men will refuse to obey any order issued by him.” Recognizing Hill’s dissatisfaction, Magruder wrote Richmond: “I think I rank him, but am of the impression that it is the subject of some feeling on his part. He has, however, obeyed my orders so far, and I presume will continue to do so.”
Hill took command of the 1,458 Confederate troops at Big Bethel and established a forward position three miles away at Little Bethel, fortified with a series of entrenchments. Magruder was hopeful of defeating the enemy if he could incite the Northerners to fight, but he also wanted to give himself time to improve the Williamsburg, Yorktown and Warwick River defenses.
Hill’s men constructed earthworks on a slight hill that commanded the Confederate position across Brick Kiln Creek on his right flank. The works were protected by the creek and a marsh, and also reinforced with a howitzer. On the north of Brick Kiln Creek Hill’s troops constructed fortifications that commanded the bridge and encircled the road to defend the position’s flanks. Three artillery pieces were positioned to control access to the bridge. Outside the main redoubt was a rifled howitzer, situated to enable the Southerners to guard a downriver ford.
Butler, who had received additional reinforcements, began probing the surrounding countryside to thwart Confederate activity. On June 4, elements of the 5th New York, Abram Duryea’s Zouaves, marched to the village of Fox Hill and then returned to Fort Monroe—prompting the Confederates to burn Howard’s Bridge on the Hampton-York Road to protect their left flank. On the 7th and again on the 9th, Federal scouting units clashed with Confederates near Newmarket Bridge.
Concerned by the increasing Confederate presence near Hampton, and with Confederate reinforcements at Big Bethel threatening land communications between Camp Butler and Fort Monroe, Butler decided he must destroy the Confederate outpost at Big Bethel. He anticipated that such an action might even open the door for an advance against Richmond. Major Theodore Winthrop, Butler’s military secretary, devised a rather complex plan to dispatch troops from Camp Butler, Camp Hamilton and Fort Monroe to converge on Big Bethel at dawn on June 10. Winthrop believed a night march would give the Union force the element of surprise and ensure victory.
The Union soldiers were issued white armbands to help avoid any confusion when the units joined up near Bethel in the darkness. They were also given the password “Boston,” to use whenever unrecognized troops approached each other during the march.
Brigadier General Ebenezer W. Pierce commanded the 4,400-man operation. Duryea’s Zouaves led, starting from Camp Hamilton at midnight to intersect the Confederate positions between Little and Big Bethel. Captain Judson Kilpatrick took two companies of Zouaves in advance. Colonel Duryea followed with the rest of his command. One hour later Colonel Frank Townsend’s 3rd New York Volunteers crossed the Hampton River in scows with two howitzers, then marched toward Little Bethel.
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Peter T. Washburn organized a force of volunteers from the 1st Vermont and 4th Massachusetts. Washburn’s command was supposed to start its march from Camp Butler on Newport News Point, followed by Colonel John E. Bendix’s 7th New York. The plan dictated that Bendix and Townsend would join up near Little Bethel, then march on the Confederate position there while Washburn’s command made a demonstration in front of Little Bethel.
Kilpatrick’s Zouaves arrived at Little Bethel at dawn on the 10th and captured three Confederate pickets. They were ready to continue their advance when the Federal plans unraveled due to a tragic mishap. As the 3rd New York approached the 7th New York in darkness, Bendix’s men, alerted by the sound of horses and unable to see the white armbands of the oncoming troops, fired into the 3rd’s ranks before Townsend’s troops could identify themselves, resulting in 18 casualties, the war’s first friendly fire incident.
The Confederates were also on the move in the darkness. The 1st North Carolina marched toward Little Bethel to interrupt any Union force moving across Newmarket Creek (the southwest branch of the Back River). Then at 3 a.m. a local woman, Hannah Tunnel, alerted Magruder about the Federal movements. The friendly fire mishap confirmed what she told Magruder and Hill, and Magruder prudently decided that he would fall back on Big Bethel to make a stand behind the earthworks.
Pierce, meanwhile, learned from a free black that the Southerners had 4,000 troops at Big Bethel. Captain Kilpatrick and Lt. Col. Gouverneur K. Warren of the 5th New York had both scouted the Confederate position. Although Kilpatrick confirmed reports that the Confederates had more than 4,000 men at Big Bethel, Warren disagreed. He thought the Confederate left could be turned, pointing out that the forward battery on the south side of Brick Kiln Creek was one of the “commanding eminences” and should be captured. Pierce ordered the attack to go forward despite losing the element of surprise. As the Union force marched toward Big Bethel, Pierce ordered the Little Bethel Chapel burned.
Hill had deployed his forces to resist the expected attack. Men of the 15th Virginia, along with one howitzer, manned the redoubt on the southern side of Brick Kiln Creek. Sharpshooters from the 1st North Carolina were posted along the edge of the woods along the Hampton-York Highway. On the northern side of Brick Kiln Creek, the Richmond Howitzers were positioned in the main redoubt, guarding the bridge with three guns; Major Montague’s companies and elements of the 1st North Carolina held the flanks and rear of the redoubt.
Confederate shells rained down on the Yankee troops as they left the cover of some woods and charged across an open field toward the redoubt. Lieutenant John Trout Greble’s three-gun battery returned fire, but even though the shells whizzed through the main Confederate redoubt, none of the Southerners were injured.
Hill stood in the open, calmly smoking a pipe during the hour-long artillery exchange, telling his men, “Boys, you have learned to dodge already.” The Mexican War veteran added, “I am an old hand at it”—then leaned away from a shell that flew past him and shook his finger at the Federals, yelling, “You missed me this time!”
The Confederate shell fire was more effective. Kilpatrick noted that “the enemy’s fire at this time began to fall on us with great effect. My men were falling one after another.” Kilpatrick’s company advanced against the skirmishers on the Confederate left. That advance was stopped by artillery fire, and the Zouaves fell back behind an orchard.
Pierce tried to keep up the Federal drive, and attacked the forward Confederate redoubt with the 5th New York and 7th New York while the 3rd New York moved to envelop the Confederate right. The 15th Virginia abandoned its position when a priming wire broke in the vent of its howitzer. Colonel Duryea and his 5th New York pressed the Confederates, but the 15th Virginia blocked a move by the Zouaves to cross an old ford downstream.
Colonel Townsend’s 3rd New York’s critical assault on the Confederate right faltered when he noticed bayonets reflecting in the sun through the woods. Thinking that his troops were about to be flanked by a Confederate force, Townsend ordered a withdrawal. This left the Zouaves isolated in the Confederate redoubt. Under pressure from a counterattack by elements from the 15th Virginia, the Wythe Rifles and the 1st North Carolina, they retreated.
Several New Yorkers took refuge in a blacksmith shop and began shooting into the earthworks. When D.H. Hill wanted the shop burned, five volunteers dashed toward it with hatchets and lighting material, but deadly Union gunfire stopped them.
Major Winthrop didn’t want to see his plan fail. He organized yet another assault on the Confederate left using his Vermont and Massachusetts troops. Winthrop got up on a log, waving his sword and shouting,” Come on boys; one charge and the day is ours!” But his bravery was his undoing: He was immediately killed. Winthrop’s loss demoralized his troops, which fell back across Brick Kiln Creek. That retreat, wrote Hill, “decided the action in our favor.”
Young Lieutenant Greble also died on the field, killed while commanding his guns. Greble had the dubious distinction of being the first Regular Army officer and West Point graduate to be killed during the conflict.
Soon the entire Union force was in disorganized flight. The Federals didn’t feel safe until they crossed Newmarket Bridge. Colonel Warren, the only Union officer to maintain his composure, remained on the battlefield to collect the wounded and Lieutenant Greble’s body.
Big Bethel was a complete failure for the Union, whereas Rebel Colonel Hill noted that his men “seemed to enjoy it as much as boys do rabbit-shooting.” North Carolinian B.M. Hord remembered: “a regiment would come up, fire a volley or two, mostly over our heads and precipitately fall back. It seemed their principal object was to get a sight or shot at a Rebel, then fall back as quickly as possible.”
The Federals lost a total of 76 men: 18 killed, 53 wounded and five missing. Butler became a scapegoat for Union ineptitude, blamed for acting on poor intelligence and remaining at Fort Monroe during the fight. But Pierce received most of the criticism for the Union disaster.
The New York Times noted that Pierce “lost his presence of mind” during the engagement. Labeled incompetent, he was mustered out of the Army after his 90-day enlistment. The Northern press tried to salvage some honor out of the defeat. The Union troops were described as courageous, as they had “fought both friend and foe alike with equal resolution and only retired after exhausting their ammunition in face of a powerful enemy.”
Winthrop and Greble were lionized for their valor and sacrifice. According to D.H. Hill, Winthrop was the “only one of the enemy who exhibited an approximation of courage that day.” Urged by Butler to “Be Bold! Be Bold! But not too bold,” he almost won the day. The Atlantic Monthly ran several articles about his service that posthumously earned Winthrop even greater fame.
Southerners rejoiced over the Big Bethel victory, the more so since Confederate casualties were only one killed, seven wounded and three missing. The dead soldier, Private Henry Lawson Wyatt of Company B, 1st North Carolina, achieved martyrdom, as he had been killed by a shot through the forehead during a volunteer mission to “burn a house between the lines.” He was the first Confederate infantryman to die in battle.
Magruder himself would receive most of the glory for the win at Big Bethel. Jefferson Davis declared the battle a “glorious victory,” while Robert E. Lee took pleasure in expressing his “gratification at the gallant conduct of the troops under your command and approbation of dispositions made by you, resulting as they did, in the route of the enemy.” Magruder was promoted to brigadier general exactly one week after the battle.
The war went on. Major General George B. McClellan led a Union drive on Richmond in 1862 that caused Robert E. Lee to leave his desk job in order to push back the Union host. Magruder’s poor conduct during that fighting would get him shuttled off to Texas, and huge casualty lists soon pushed the names of Greble, Winthrop, Wyatt and Big Bethel from the public’s memory.
John Quarstein, director emeritus of the Virginia War Museum, serves as historian for the city of Hampton, Va., where he resides.