The Battle of Big Bethel, also known as the Battle of Bethel Church or Great Bethel was one of the earliest land battles of the American Civil War (Civil War) after the surrender of Fort Sumter. The battle between Union Army and Confederate States Army forces on June 10, 1861 took place in Hampton and York County, Virginia, (near the present-day unincorporated community of Tabb). While small in comparison to the many larger, bloodier and more significant battles later in the war, the Battle of Big Bethel and all early Civil War military engagements attracted considerable notice, press coverage and exaggerated importance because of the newness of the war and the general feeling the war would be short.
On April 15, 1861, the day after the small U. S. Army garrison at Fort Sumter formally surrendered to Confederate forces, President Abraham Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion. Virginia refused to provide soldiers for this purpose and its State government leaders reconvened a convention in Richmond, Virginia, which voted to secede from the Union on April 17, 1861, subject to ratification by a popular vote on May 23, 1861. A small United States Regular Army garrison was able to hold the powerful and strategically located Fort Monroe on the southern end of the Virginia Peninsula and the Chesapeake Bay and the north side of Hampton Roads. The fort could be reinforced and resupplied by water without threat of attack and was approachable by land only over a narrow causeway and narrow isthmus of land. By April 20, 1861, the U.S. War Department was able to reinforce the fort with two trained and ready Massachusetts volunteer militia infantry regiments. On May 23, 1861, Major General of volunteers Benjamin F. Butler, a former Massachusetts politician and lawyer, took charge of the growing garrison. By May 29, 1861, he established a camp with cannon range of the fort at nearby Hampton, Virginia and a fortified camp at Newport News, Virginia about 8 miles (13 km) from the fort.
On May 21, 1861, Virginia's chief military officer, Major General Robert E. Lee responded to the growing threat from Fort Monroe by putting Colonel (later Major General) John B. Magruder in charge of the Virginia (Confederate) forces in the southern Virginia Peninsula area. Magruder assumed command on May 24, 1861 and set up headquarters at Yorktown, Virginia. He began fortifying a line along the Warwick River. On June 6, 1861, Magruder sent a force to fortify a strong advanced position mostly on the north side of a branch of the Back River at Big Bethel Church, about 13 miles (21 km) south of Yorktown and 8 miles (13 km) from Hampton. A smaller outpost was established at Little Bethel Church, which was about the same 8 miles (13 km) distance from both Union camps. From these positions, the Confederates could harass Union pickets and patrols, impress reluctant men into the Confederate army and abduct slaves to work on fortifications.
Butler and an aide, Major Theodore Winthrop, devised a plan for a coordinated dawn attack on June 10, 1861, after a night march by federal forces from their two main bases outside Fort Monroe, to drive the Confederates back from their threatening advanced positions at Little Bethel and Big Bethel. The inexperienced Union officers and forces could not execute the plan. In a precursor of the conflicting uniform mixup at the First Battle of Bull Run, one Union regiment mistook another Union regiment dressed in gray for Confederates in the dark and began firing on them. Not only did the attacked Union regiment suffer several killed and wounded, but the gunfire alerted the Confederates to the movement of the Union forces. Nonetheless, the Union field commander, Massachusetts militia brigadier general Ebenezer W. Peirce, pushed on. In an ill-coordinated attack over broken and swampy ground, the Union forces attacked well-fortified Confederate positions at Big Bethel which had well-placed artillery support. One Union regiment made a difficult flanking march only to find they were unsupported and cut off when they closed for an attack. Another regiment prematurely withdrew from the field through an error by its commander, leaving the remaining force on the field which had advanced to a vacated Confederate position quite vulnerable and the advance force also had to withdraw. After a few more Union attacks were thwarted, Peirce decided further attacks would have been futile so he ordered the Union forces to retire from the field and returned to their bases. The Union forces suffered 76 casualties, with 18 killed, including Major Winthrop and Lieutenant John T. Greble, the first regular army officer killed in the war. The Confederates suffered only 8 casualties, with only 1 killed. Although Magruder subsequently withdrew to Yorktown and his defensive line along the Warwick River, he had won a propaganda victory and the Union forces attempted no further significant advance on the Peninsula until the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
Read more about Battle Of Big Bethel: Aftermath, Claim As First Land Battle of The American Civil War, Battlefield Preservation
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