Battle of Big Bethel - Aftermath


Total Federal casualties at the Battle of Big Bethel and the friendly fire incident which preceded it were 76, including 18 killed, 53 wounded and 5 missing. Poland, 2006, p. 238 gives an account of the Union casualties by regiment as follows: Staff: 1 killed (Winthrop); 4th Massachusetts: 1 killed; 1st New York: 1 killed; 2d New York: 2 killed, 1 wounded; 3rd New York: 2 killed, 27 wounded or missing; 5th New York: 6 killed, 13 wounded; 7th New York: 3 killed, 7 wounded, 2 missing; 1st Vermont: 2 killed, 3 wounded, 1 missing; Second U.S. Artillery: 1 killed (Greble).

Union forces attempted no further advance on the Virginia Peninsula until the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. However, Butler did send an expedition up the Back River with naval support on June 24, 1861 which destroyed 14 transports and several small boats which had supplies for the Confederate forces. Both sides generally continued to hold and improve their positions and works until the Peninsula campaign began.

Butler soon had to return many of his men to Washington in order to reinforce the defeated Union force after the First Battle of Bull Run as fear for the security of the capital ran high. While Butler continued to maintain the camp at Newport News, he had to abandon the camp at Hampton for lack of men. When Magruder discovered this, on August 7, 1861, a Confederate force burned Hampton so it could no longer be used to shelter runaway slaves. Butler did not attempt to shell the Confederates from the fort for fear he would be blamed, at least in part, for the burning of the town due to cannon fire.

Butler was criticized for the debacle at Big Bethel, including his decision not to lead the operation in person. His appointment as major general of volunteers was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by only two votes. Most of the criticism fell on the Massachusetts militia general, Ebenezer Peirce. Many of the men even wrote to newspapers and others to condemn Peirce's handling of the operation, lack of coordination of forces, sporadic efforts at fighting, wasting of time and leaving too much discretion to subordinates. Even Butler spoke of Peirce's shortcomings in handling the matter, although in more restrained language than he is reported to have used in private.

The Confederates suffered only one killed and seven wounded. Many authors have stated that Private Henry L. Wyatt of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers, later the 11th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, the only Confederate soldier killed in the battle was the first Confederate soldier killed in combat in the Civil War. This is only correct to the extent a distinction is made between the first officer killed, Captain John Quincy Marr, who was killed at the Battle of Fairfax Court House (June 1861) on June 1, 1861 and the first enlisted man killed, which Private Wyatt appears to have been.

Major Winthrop and several other Union dead were buried on the field by the Confederates. Soon thereafter, Magruder granted a request by Winthrop's brother and Union officers, under a flag of truce, to recover Winthrop's body. They returned the body on the field with a respectful escort.

Major Randolph's artillery and Colonel D. H. Hill's 1st North Carolina infantry troops were commended by Magruder for their actions. Within hours of the battle, Magruder withdrew his forces to Yorktown, where he established a line protected by the Warwick River. Magruder feared another larger and better planned Union attack on his position and felt he should maintain his defense at Yorktown and along the Warwick River. The press in the Confederate States in particular made the Confederate victory appear to be more momentous than it was and greatly exaggerated the number of Union soldiers killed in the battle, a common reaction by both sides to battles in 1861.

At the time, the outcome of the battle was an important boost to Southern confidence and morale. Along with the Confederate victory at the Battle of First Bull Run (Battle of First Manassas) six weeks later, it provided what proved to be undue encouragement and confidence in a quick victory in the war to the Confederates. Union morale was correspondingly damaged but as events proved, the Northern public and military showed resilience and determination in the face of several early defeats.

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