Fought on June 10, 1861, Big Bethel was among the American Civil War’s first pitched battles. Since the Virginia Secession Convention passed an ordinance of secession in May, Union forces had steadily reinforced Fort Monroe, a federal fort at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula between the James and York rivers. It was the only federal property in Virginia not seized by secessionists, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln did not want a repeat of the loss of Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
On May 22, Massachusetts Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler was assigned to command the troops at Fort Monroe. Butler was an aggressive commander and immediately sought to expand his foothold on the Virginia Peninsula. His men occupied nearby Hampton and Newport News by the end of May. In order to block further incursions, Confederate forces commanded by Col. John B. Magruder dug a mile long set of entrenchments north of Marsh Creek near the churches of Big and Little Bethel.
Butler and his aide, Maj. Theodore Winthrop, devised a plan for a surprise attack at night, to be led by Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Peirce. Col. Abram Duryee’s 5th New York Infantry Regiment was to move out from Camp Hamilton at Hampton after midnight, with Col. Frederick Townsend’s 3rd New York Infantry Regiment in support. The 1st Vermont, 4th Massachusetts, 7th New York moved out from Newport News with several artillery pieces.
Butler ordered the watchword “Boston” be given to each column, and further ordered that all troops should wear a white rag or handkerchief on their left arms so they would recognize each other in the darkness. But his messenger, Captain Haggerty, failed to advise Col. John W. Phelps at Newport News of these precautions.
Early in the morning of Monday, June 10, Col. Townsend’s regiment, led by Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Peirce, came up behind the 7th New York as planned, but Col. John A. Bendix mistook Peirce’s staff for enemy cavalry. To further confuse matters, the 3rd New York regiment wore gray uniforms. The 7th New York turned and fired, inflicting 21 casualties and sending dozens of men into panicked retreat. The friendly-fire incident was exactly the kind of disaster Butler hoped to avoid.
Union forces eventually sorted things out, but the musket fire alerted Confederate troops to the attack. The Confederate force mainly consisted of Col. Daniel Harvey Hill’s 1st North Carolina Regiment and the Richmond Howitzers under Maj. George W. Randolph. Hearing that an attack was either imminent or in progress, their advanced guard fell back to their trenches.
The battle continued throughout the morning and afternoon, with multiple Union attacks on the Confederate earthworks. The Union forces were tired, inexperienced, and demoralized from the friendly-fire incident, however, and D. H. Hill’s men were in a strong defensive position. Maj. Winthrop was shot through the heart and killed leading one of the last charges of the day. Lt. John Trout Greble, a regular Army officer, was killed while preparing his cannon to withdraw.
Until the Battle of Big Bethel, Confederate forces in Virginia had been on the retreat. The capture of Alexandria and humiliating flight from Philippi had been widely circulated in the press. Finally, Confederate forces inflicted a clear loss on the Yankee “invaders”. Union forces lost 18 killed, 53 wounded, and five missing to the Confederate’s one killed and nine wounded. There would be a few more small skirmishes on the Virginia Peninsula that summer, but major operations ended until the following year.
Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:
- May 27th Report of Major General B. F. Butler, U. S. Army, Commanding Department of Virginia
- May 29th Report of Major General B. F. Butler, U. S. Army, Commanding Department of Virginia
- June 7th Report of Captain W. H. Werth, Chatham Grays, Virginia Cavalry
- June 10th Report of Major General B. F. Butler, U. S. Army
- June 10th Report of Colonel J. B. Magruder, C. S. Army, 1st
- June 10th Report of Colonel J. B. Magruder, C. S. Army, 2nd
- June 11th Report of Captain Judson Kilpatrick, Fifth New York Infantry
- June 11th Report of Lieut. Col. Peter T. Washburn, First Vermont Infantry
- June 12th Report of Brigadier General E. W. Pierce, Massachusetts Militia
- June 12th Report of Colonel Frederick Townsend, Third New York Infantry
- June 12th Report of Colonel John E. Bendix, Seventh New York Infantry
- June 12th Report of Colonel J. B. Magruder, C. S. Army
- Report of Colonel D. H. Hill, First North Carolina Infantry, on Big Bethel
- Report of Lieut. Col. William D. Stuart, Third Virginia Infantry, on Big Bethel
- June 12th Report of Major George W. Randolph, Commanding Howitzer Battalion
- Report of Major E. B. Montague, commanding Virginia Battalion, on Big Bethel
- June 12th Report of Captain W. H. Werth, Commanding Chatham Grays, Virginia Cavalry
- June 13th Report of Captain W. H. Werth, Commanding Chatham Grays, Virginia Cavalry
- June 16th Report of Major General B. F. Butler, U. S. Army