HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF VIRGINIA,
Fortress Monroe, June 16, 1861.
GENERAL: Upon examination of the official reports of the officers commanding the various corps who were engaged in the skirmish at Big Bethel, I find nothing to add or correct in my former dispatch, in so far as relates to the dispositions for the attack. It now turns out beyond controversy, as I deem, that the firing was commenced upon Colonel Townsend’s by Colonel Bendix’s men. It is not so certain whether Colonel Bendix gave the order to fire or not, although the evidence is strong upon the point that he did so.
Of was evidently a mistake, and in spite of the precaution that, before any order to fire was to be given in the dark, the watchword “Boston” should be shouted, and that Colonel Townsend’s men should be distinguished by a white badge upon the arm, with which order Colonel Townsend complied. Lieutenant Greble, of the Second Artillery (regulars), whose loss as a gallant officer, thorough soldier, and amiable man we all must deplore, was with Colonel Bendix’s command and participated in the mistake of Colonel Bendix, as I am informed by the colonel’s report. Colonel Townsend has desired a court of inquiry for the purpose of investigating this transaction, with which request, as soon the exigencies of the public service will permit, I shall comply.
As I stated in the former report, this attack was not intended to enable us to hold Big Bethel as a post, because it was not seriously in our way on any proposed road to Yorktown, and therefore there was never any intention of maintaining it, even if captured. The length of the road and the heat of the weather had caused great fatigue, as many their thickest clothing I take leave to assure you that every precaution had been taken to prevent notice to the enemy of our approach. A picket guard had been sent out on the night before at 10 o’clock to prevent the egress of persons from our camp in the direction of Yorktown, but we have since learned that information had been communicated to the enemy of our approach and we believe that we have under arrest the person who communicated the intelligence-a discharged soldier of the United States many years since, who resided in Hampton. If the evidence is satisfactory to court-martial, he will be dealt with such severity of punishment as will be a lesson to the many who surround us, and who are engaged in the same nefarious business.
From subsequent information I am certain that the force which was at first in Great Bethel did not exceed a regiment, and had the order been executed which I had given to General Pierce of attack, that, “if we find the enemy and surprise them we will fire a volley if necessary, not reload, but go ahead with the bayonet,” I have no doubt of the capture of the battery. But in attempting to obtain information upon the road as to the force in Big Bethel, the exaggerated statements of the inhabitants and the negroes as to the numbers entrenched were taken, instead of the estimates and information of the commanding general, so that it was believed by the officers in command and by the men that there were 4,000 or 5,000 there in force. From the intelligence given the enemy, and the unfortunate occurrence of the morning, two regiments to re-enforce them were at last brought up, but not until about the time our troops retired. I make no doubt that the battery would have been taken but for another unfortunate mistake, as reported to me, wherein the colonel of a regiment mistook two companies of his own men, which had been separated from him a thicket, for a flanking party of the enemy, making a sortie from the battery, and because of that mistake retired; so that it would seem that the skirmish was lost twice because our officers mistook their friends for their enemies. I am informed, and fully believe, that immediately upon the retiring of our troops, for the propose, as was supposed by the enemy, of turning the flank the battery, the battery was immediately evacuated, and remained so evacuated until the second day. If it was so done it would be a matter for no consequence, because, as General Scott had been informed, as I have already previously stated, it was no part of our intention to occupy it. The major part of the officers and men behaved with the greatest gallantry and good conduct, and I have to mention in terms of commendation the gallantry and courage of Colonel Townsend, the coolness and firmness of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, and the efficiency of Captain Haggerty, of my staff, who was acting as aid to General Pierce, a part of his own being sick.
The country has to deplore the loss of Major Theodore Winthrop, my acting military secretary, who led the advance corps whit Colonel Duryea, and who the moment before his death had gone forward on the right with the detachment of Vermont and Massachusetts troops, under order of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, and who at the moment of his death was engaged in finding the best manner of entering the battery, when he fell mortally wounded. His conduct, his courage, his efficiency in the field, were spoken of in terms of praise by all who saw him.
Subsequent knowledge has shown beyond all question that, if at the time our troops retired, and advance had been ordered the battery would have been taken; but this is the result of subsequent knowledge, and is not to be taken as evidence of the want of efficiency of those in command of our troops. It is a pleasure to be able announce that our loss was much less even than was reported in my former dispatch, and appears by the official report furnished herewith. Our loss of those permanently injured is twenty-five. I have the honor again to inform you that we have gained much more than we have lost by the skirmish at Big Bethel, and while the advance upon the battery and the capture of it might have added eclat to the occasion it would not have added to its substantial results. I have been very careful to procure an accurate of the dead, wounded, and missing, in order that I may assure those friends who are anxious for the safety of our soldiers and an exact account may be given of all those injured. There is nothing to be gained by any concealment in this regard. The exact truth, which is to be stated at all times, if anything is stated, is especially necessary on such occasions. In this behalf I think we are not to take a lesson from our enemies. I am happy to add that upon sending a message to Yorktown I found that the courtesies of civilized warfare have been and are intended to be extended of us by the enemies of the country now in arms, which in this department at all times shall be fully reciprocated. I have omitted a detailed statement of the movements of the various corps in this attack, because, while it might be interesting, yet, without a map of the ground and details, would serve no useful purpose. I forward herewith the official reports of General Pierce and Colonels Bendix and Townsend, which contain all that may be material.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
Casualties in the United States forces at Big Bethel, June 10, 1861.
|Staff||1||1||Maj. Theodore Winthrop|
|First New York||2||1||3|
|Second New York||2||1||3|
|Third New York||2||27||1||30|
|Fifth New York||6||13||19|
|Seventh New York||3||7||2||12|
|Second U.S. Artillery||1||1||Lieut. John T. Greble|
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.