HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF VIRGINIA,
Fortress Monroe, June 10, 1861.
GENERAL: Having learned that the enemy had established an outpost of some strength at a place called Little Bethel, a small church about eight miles from Newport News, and the same distance from Hampton, from whence they were accustomed nightly to advance both on Newport New and the picket guards of Hampton, to annoy them, and also from whence they had come down in small squads of cavalry and taken a number of Union men, some of whom had the safeguard and protection of the troops of the United States, and forced them into the rebel ranks, and that they were also gathering up the slaves of citizens who had moved away and left their farms in charge of their negroes, carrying them to work in entrenchments at Williamsburg and Yorktown, I had determined to send up a force to drive them back and destroy their camp, the headquarters of which was this small church.
I had also learned that at a place a short distance farther on, on the road to Yorktown, was an outwork of the rebels on the Hampton side of place called Big Bethel, a large church near the head of the north branch of Back River; that here was a very considerable rendezvous, with works of more or less strength in process of erection, and from this point the whole country was laid under contribution. Accordingly, I ordered General Pierce, who is in command of Camp Hamilton, at Hampton, to send Duryea’s regiment of zouaves to be ferried over Hampton Creek at 1 o’clock this morning, and to march by the road up to New Market thence, crossing the bridge, to go by a by-road, and thus put the regiment in the rear of the enemy and between Big Bethel and Little Bethel, in part for the purpose of cutting him off, and then to make an attack upon Little Bethel. I directed General Pierce to support him from Hampton with Colonel Townsend’s regiment with two mounted howitzers, and to march about an hour later. At the same time I directed Colonel Phelps, commanding at Newport News, to send out a battalion composed of such companies of the regiments under his command of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, in time to make a demonstration upon Little Bethel in front and to have him supported by Colonel Bendix’s regiment with two field pieces. Bendix’s and Townsend’s regiments should effect a junction at a fork of the road leading from Hampton to Newport News, something like a mile and a half from Little Bethel.
I directed the march to be so timed that the attack should be made just at daybreak, and that after the attack was made upon Little Bethel, Duryea’s regiment and a regiment from Newport News should follow immediately upon the heels of the fugitives, if they were enabled to get off, and attach the battery on the road to Big Bethel while covered by the fugitives or if it was thought expedient by General Pierce, failing to surprise the camp at Little Bethel, they should attempt to take the work near Big Bethel. To prevent the possibility of mistake in the of mistake in the darkness, I directed that no attack should be made until the watchword was shouted by the attacking regiment, and in case that, by any mistake in the march, the regiments that were to make the junction should unexpectedly meet, and be unknown to each other, also directed that the members of Colonel Townsend’s regiment should be known, if in daylight, by something white worn on the arm.
The troops were accordingly put in motion as ordered, and the march was timed that Colonel Duryea had got in the potion note upon the accompanying sketch, and Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, in command of the regiment from Newport News, had got into the position indicated upon the sketch, and Bendix’s regiment had been posted and ordered to hold the fork of the road with two pieces of artillery, and Townsend’s regiment had got the place indicated just behind, and about to form a junction as the day dawned.
Up to this point the plan had been vigorously, accurately, and successfully carried out. But here, by some strange fatuity, and as yet unexplained blunder, without any word of notice, while Townsend was in column en route, and when the head of the column was within one hundred yards, Colonel Bendix’s regiment opened fire with both artillery and musketry upon Townsend’s column, which in the hurry and confusion was irregularly returned by some of Townsend’s men, who feared that they had fallen into an ambuscade. Townsend’s column immediately retreated to the eminence near by, and were not pursued by Bendix’s men. By this almost criminal blunder two men of Townsend’s regiment were killed, and eight (more or less) wounded. Hearing this cannonading and firing in his rear, Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, not knowing but that his communication might be cut off, immediately reversed his march, as did Colonel Duryea, and marched back to form a junction with his reserves. General Pierce, who was with Townsend’s regiment fearing that the enemy had got notice of our approach and had posted himself in force on the line of march, and not getting any communications from Colonel Dureya, sent back to me for re-enforcements, and I immediately ordered Colonel Allen’s regiment to be put in motion, and they reached Hampton about 7 o’clock. In the mean time, the true state of facts having been ascertained by General Pierce, the regiment effected a junction and resumed the line of march. At the moment of the firing of Bendix, Colonel Duryea had surprised a part of an outlying guard of the enemy, consisting of three persons, who have been brought in to me. Of course, by this firing, all hope of a surprise upon the camp at Little Bethel was lost and marching upon it is was found to have been vacated, and the cavalry had pressed on toward Big Bethel. Colonel Duryea, however, destroyed the camp at Little Bethel, and advanced. General Pierce then as he informs me, with the advice of his colonels, thought best to attempt to carry the works of the enemy at Big Bethel, and made dispositions to that effect.
The attack commenced, as I am informed (for I have not yet received any official reports) about half past 9 o’clock General Pierce sent a note to me, saying that there was a sharp engagement with the enemy, and that he thought he should be able to maintain his position until re-enforcements could come up. Acting upon this information, Colonel Carr’s regiment, which had been ordered in the morning to proceed afar as New Bridge, was allowed to go forward. I received this information, for which I had sent a special messenger about 12 o’clock.
I immediately made disposition from Newport New to have Colonel Phelps, from the four regiments there, to forward aid, if necessary. As soon as these orders could be sent forward I repaired to Hampton, for the purpose of having proper ambulances and wagons for the sick and wounded, intending to go forward and join the command. While the wagons were going forward messenger came announcing that the engagement had terminated, and that the troops were retiring in good order to camp.
I remained upon the ground at Hampton, personally seeing the wounded put in boats and towed around to the hospital, and ordering forward Lieutenant Morris, with two boat howitzers, to cover the rear of the returning column in case it should be attacked. Having been informed that the ammunition of the artillery had been expended, and seeing the head of the column approach Hampton in good order, I waited for General Pierce to come up. I am informed by him that the dead and wounded had all been brought off, and that the return had been conducted in good order and without haste. I learned from him that the men behaved with great steadiness, with the exception of some few instances, and that the attack was made with propriety, vigor and courage, but that the enemy were found to be supported by a battery variously estimated as of from fifteen to twenty pieces, some of which were rifled cannon, which were very well served, and protected from being readily turned by a creek in front.
Our loss is very considerable, amounting, perhaps, to forty of fifty, a quarter part of which, you will see, was from the unfortunate mistake, to call it by no worse name, of Colonel Bendix.
I will, as soon as official returns can be got, give a fuller, detail of the affair; and will only add now that we have to regret especially the death of Lieutenant Greble, of the Second Artillery, who went out with Colonel Washburn from Newport News, and who very efficiently and gallantly fought his piece until he was struck by a cannon-shot.
I will endeavor to get accurate statements to forward by the next mail.
I think, in the unfortunate combination of circumstances and the result which we experienced, we have gained more than we have lost. Our troops have learned to have confidence in themselves under fire. The enemy have shown that they will not meet us in the open field. Our officers have learned wherein their organization and drill are inefficient.
While waiting for the official reports, I have the honor to submit thus far the information of which I am possessed.
I have the honor to be, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. II. With additions and corrections. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902.