Union Attacks At Big Bethel
Having determined to continue to Big Bethel without knowledge of the layout or strength of the Confederate positions, Peirce sent Duryee's 5th New York Infantry out first. Captain Kilpatrick along with Captain Charles G. Bartlett and skirmishers were sent forward to scout the Confederate position. They returned to the main body of the Union force and, after observation and talking to a black man and a local woman as well, told the officers in command that the Confederates had between 3,000 and 5,000 men and 30 pieces of artillery. They actually had about 1,400–1,500 men and 5 artillery pieces, but Kilpatrick accurately reported that their position was well fortified. If the Union forces had not done enough already to give up their plan and position, Kilpatrick gave notice of the arrival of the Union force at Big Bethel by shooting at Confederate scouts and pickets. As the Union force came up to the field, they could not see the Confederates behind their fortifications but the Confederates also did not have a good view of the Union force because of the shade from the woods behind the field on the right and small buildings on the left. However, they could see the bayonets and flag of a Union force about 0.5 miles (0.80 km) to the left. Major Randolph, commanding the Howitzer Battalion, fired a shot at this column which ricocheted through the Union line and killed a soldier standing next to Colonel Bendix.
The two forces then began an intermittent fight that began at 9:00 a.m. and lasted until 1:30 p.m. After the initial artillery shot, Bendix's men began to scatter into the trees for protection. The 5th New York Infantry under Colonel Duryee charged the left of the forward Confederate position with the apparent ultimate intent of crossing the stream and turning the Confederate flank but they were quickly discouraged and turned back by heavy Confederate fire. Lieutenant Greble came up the road to place his three guns where he and his small detachment of regulars from the 2nd U.S. Artillery Regiment could return fire, which he did resolutely but with little effect. Peirce then positioned the 5th New York (Duryee), 7th New York (Bendix) and the Massachusetts and Vermont companies (Washburn) to the right of the Hampton Road and the 3rd New York (Townsend) and 1st New York (Allen) to the left of the road. He would launch piecemeal attacks from these positions. Greble continued to fire at the Confederate positions while Peirce arranged his force and gave them some time to rest.
Union skirmishers went forward to try to determine the strength of the Confederate position. Most were driven back immediately. Two companies from the 5th New York led by Captain Kilpatrick and Captain John G. Butler, the General's nephew, advanced across an open field with only a few trees, a shed and a house for cover. An artillery shot went through the house and killed one of the men. Around noon, the 3rd New York Infantry led by Colonel Townsend came forward to the skirmishers' position. They tried to attack the forward Confederate position but could advance only to within 500 feet (150 m) before being forced to lay down due to the heavy Confederate fire. Townsend feared he was being flanked and began to withdraw just as the Confederate howitzer facing his position broke and the Confederate commander in the redoubt, Colonel William D. Stuart, pulled his 200 men of the 3rd Virginia Infantry back to a hill near the church. Stuart also feared he was being flanked. Part of the 5th New York Infantry which was attacking alongside the 3rd New York temporarily seized this position but were unable to hold it. Townsend had nothing to fear from the men on his left because they were a company of his own regiment who had become separated from the main body. By the time this was discovered, Townsend had pulled back. Magruder did not want to give up the advantageous forward position and sent Stuart back with another howitzer and reinforcements from the 1st North Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This Confederate move and Townsend's retreat left the 5th New York unsupported and they had to withdraw from their captured position as well. Renewed fire from the regained Confederate position insured that neither Townsend nor Duryee would move forward against this position again.
Meanwhile, Kilpatrick was trying to lead part of the 5th New York around the Confederates from the right but they came under heavy fire. As men were falling, Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Gouverneur K. Warren came forward on a white mule and began to lead the men toward a ford through the creek 0.75 miles (1.21 km) from the main road to Hampton. A platoon guarding the ford was outnumbered by the Union force and retreated as they approached. Magruder ordered Captain W. H. Werth forward with a howitzer company. Werth hurried to the ford and arrived before the Zouaves of the 5th New York Infantry under Duryee and Kilpatrick. Werth drove them off from the ford with a howitzer shot but they continued to fight from the wood line. Grape shot tore the rectangle off Colonel Duryee's left shoulder, wounded Captain Kilpatrick in the thigh and killed a soldier behind them. The 5th New York Infantry was exhausted from being the first unit on the march and from heavy action in the day's fighting so the unit was pulled back. Kilpatrick, who was badly wounded by the shot through his thigh, had to be rescued and carried away by Captain Winslow at the very end of the battle after his regiment had withdrawn. Otherwise, he would have fallen into Confederate hands.
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