Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 10, 1861 (Monday): Battle at Big Bethel

Big Bethel Battlefield

Reports of Maj. Gen B. F. Butler, U. S. Army.

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 New Port News, and the same distance from Hampton, from whence they were accustomed nightly to advance both on Newport News 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…I had determined to send up a force to drive them back and destroy their camp….

Report of Brig. Gen. E. W. Pierce, Massachusetts Militia.

…We discovered a large body of armed men by the roadside, who appeared to be emerging from the woods and taking up their position on the road, and believing them to be friends, we were passing on, when we suddenly discovered they were occupying the road with a field piece, just ready to open fire on us.

Report of Col. John E. Bendix, Seventh New York Infantry.

…I was taking my position when I saw what I supposed some cavalry.  I asked the gunner if he was loaded.  The answer was, “No, sir.”  Then I directed him to load, but before this was done the firing commenced.

Report of Col. D. H. Hill, First North Carolina Infantry.

…We were aroused at 3 o’clock on Monday morning for a general advance on the enemy, and marched three and a half miles, when we learned that the foe, in large force, was within a few hundred yards of us.  We fell back hastily upon our intrenchments, and awaited the arrival of our invaders.

Report of Maj. George W. Randolph, commanding Howitzer Battalion.

…The enemy came in sight on the road leading from Hampton a few minutes before 9 o’clock a.m., and their advance guard halted at a house on the roadside about six hundred yards in front of our main battery.  Fire, however, was not opened upon them for ten or fifteen minutes, when from the number of bayonets visible in the road we judged that a heavy column was in range.  The action then commenced by a shot from the Parrott gun, aimed by myself which struck the center of the road a short distance in front of their column, and probably did good execution in ricochet.

Report of Capt. Judson Kilpatrick, Fifth New York Infantry.

….The enemy soon opened fire on us from the rifle cannon in front.  We answered his discharges by a cheer and continued to advance, clearing all before us, till we reached a point just on the edge of the woods, where the fire was so hot and heavy that we were compelled to halt…The enemy’s fire at this time began to tell upon us with great effect…

Report of Col. Frederick Townsend, Third New York Infantry.

…I moved the regiment up to the point where our skirmishers were engaged—a movement which the regiment performed in line of battle, as if on parade, in face of a severe fire of artillery and small arms, and in a manner entirely to my satisfaction.
...By the time the regiment had arrived at its position it became evident that the right portion of the battery had been strongly re-enforced by men from the enemy’s left, and that an effort to take the battery then was useless; besides a company of my regiment had been separated from the regiment by a thickly-hedged ditch, and as the regiment moved forward toward the skirmishers, this company marched in the adjoining field on a line with the regiment.
….Upon seeing among the breaks in the hedge the glistening of bayonets in the adjoining field, I immediately concluded that the enemy were outflanking us, and conceived it to be my duty immediately to retire and repel that advance.

Report of Col. D. H. Hill, First North Carolina Infantry.

….We were now as secure as at the beginning of the fight, and as yet had no man killed.  The enemy, finding himself foiled on our right flank, next made his final demonstration on our left.
….The fight at the angle lasted but twenty minutes.  It completely discouraged the enemy and he made no further effort at assault.  The house in front, which had served as a hiding place for the enemy, was now fired by a shell from a howitzer, and the outhouses and palings were soon in a blaze.  As all shelter was now taken from him, the enemy called in his troops and started back to Hampton.

Report of Capt. Judson Kilpatrick, Fifth New York Infantry.

….After remaining in this position about two hours, and our object having been accomplished--numbers of our men being killed and wounded, having received a grape through my thigh, which tore off a portion of the rectangle on Colonel Duryea’s left shoulder, passed through my leg, and killed a soldier in my rear—I withdrew my men to the skirts of the wood.

Report of Brig. Gen. E. W. Pierce, Massachusetts Militia.

…In the death of Lieutenant Greble, of U. S. Army, who bravely fell at his gun, I recognize the loss of an able and gallant officer, whose conduct in the battle is deserving of all praise, and whose memory should be perpetuated by a grateful country.

Report of Col. J. B. Magruder, C. S. Army.

…Too much praise  cannot be bestowed upon the heroic soldier whom we lost.  He was one of four who volunteered to set fire to a house in our front which was thought to afford protection to our enemy , and advancing alone between the two fires he fell midway, pierced in the forehead by a musket ball.  Henry L. Wyatt is the name of the brave soldier and devoted patriot.  He was a member of the brave and gallant North Carolina regiment.

Official Record, Series I, Vol. II, Pages 77-104

So enters into the record the Battle of Big Bethel.  4400 Union troops were engaged against 1400 Confederates.  Casualties were relatively low, 76 killed or wounded on the Union side and 11 Confederates.  Butler, true to form, declared "..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 have not have added to its substantial results."  He also had arrested a discharged solider of the U.S. Army, long retired, who lived at Hampton and who Butler blamed for disclosing the advance.  Butler was at Newport News during the battle.  D.H. Hill and Magruder became household names in the South as the result of the minor affair at Big Bethel, a battle which would soon be far eclipsed in history's annals.

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