Image: Map of the Battle of Bethel (1861)

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Map of the Battle of Bethel (1861)


Battle Of Bethel

Southern Historical Society Papers.

Vol. XXIX. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1901.

First Engagement of the War Between the States.


Of Sufficient Importance to be Recorded on Its Pages-Men Engaged in it on Both Sides Who Afterwards Became Famous.

Forty years ago the tenth of last June, the first battle of the Civil War was fought at Bethel Church, Va., between the Federal forces of General B. F. Butler (with General Pierce in immediate command) and the Confederates under General John B. Magruder. Though comparatively a small affair, considered in the light of subsequent events, at the time of its occurrence it was thought to be a great battle, and was flashed all over the country and was the subject of comment in every household. In the South it was an affair of considerable importance, inasmuch as it sent the first gleam of sunlight through the dark cloud of war that overspread this section, while at the North it served to convince the people that the South was in earnest in the secession movement.

What soldier does not remember his first battle? I will never forget this one. The early morning breakfast, the silence and seriousness that took possession of the troops as they marched to their positions, the hurried erection of breastworks, and the masking of them with sassafras bushes that were growing wild in the vicinity, the fire from which was so demoralizing to the enemy when the troops behind them rose as if out of the ground and delivered a deadly volley into their ranks. What a feeling takes possession of a man when he is crouched down behind earthworks awaiting the approach of the enemy, all unsuspecting, and he rises up from behind a masked battery and delivers his fire for the first time!

Early in June, 1861, the Confederates established an outpost at Bethel Church, on the Peninsula formed by the York and James rivers, about thirteen miles from Yorktown, eight from Hampton, and eight from the now-flourishing town of Newport News, but which was then an insignificant hamlet. Federal raiding parties had previously visited Bethel and inscribed on its church walls such "terrifying" words as "Death to Traitors!" "Down with the Rebels!" etc.

General B. F. Butler, who was in command of the Department of Virginia, with headquarters at Fortress Monroe, determined to break up this observation post of the Confederates, and organized an expedition for that purpose, consisting of about 4,400 men from the First, Second, Third, Fifth and Seventh New York regiments, under the commands of Colonels Allen, Cart, Townsend, Duryea, and Bendix, respectively; the First Vermont, Fourth Massachusetts, and Second United States Artillery (regulars), under Lieutenant John T. Greble, with orders to "burn both Bethels; blow up if of brick" (meaning Little Bethel and Big Bethel churches).

To meet this then formidable host the Confederates had assembled, under General John Bankhead Magruder, about 1,400 men, consisting of the First North Carolina regiment, Colonel D. H. Hill; three companies of the Third Virginia regiment (afterwards the Fifteenth), under Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart; three other companies of Virginia troops, under Major Montague; one company of the Richmond Howitzer battalion, under Major George W. Randolph, and two companies of Virginia cavalry of about one hundred men. From the foregoing it will be seen that there were about 4,400 men on the Federal side against about 1,400 on the Confederate.

General Pierce, of the Federal army, in command at Hampton, was in charge of Butler's forces, and his command broke camp at 1 o'clock on the morning of the 10th of June, marching by two roads, with the intention of forming a junction near Little Bethel Church, about three miles below Big Bethel, and marching in solid column on the Confederates. When the two Federal commands met one mistook the other for the Confederates, immediately swung into line of battle, opened fire, and killed two and wounded nineteen of their friends before the mistake was discovered, including four officers.

While this little "family" affair was going on the Confederates were massing their troops and preparing for the impending attack, for which they had but a little while to wait. Soon the drum-beats of the enemy were heard--so faint at first as to be hardly distinguishable, but clearer and clearer as the enemy drew nearer, until about 8 o'clock in the morning, when within about eight hundred yards in front of them, the Federal line of battle was formed, with Captain Judson Kilpatrick with two companies of Duryea's 5th New York Zouaves (the "Fire Zouaves" they were called), in advance, the Confederate pickets were driven in, and the first battle of the civil war begun at a point about thirteen miles from Yorktown, where the revolutionary war practically ended just eighty years previously.

The first move of the Federals was by a portion of Townsend's Third New York regiment against the Confederate right, which was quickly driven back by the Confederate artillery and one company of the Third Virginia.

More troops were brought up, and a determined effort made to carry the Confederate left, but with only temporary success, when a gun of the Confederate battery was accidentally spiked by the breaking of a priming-wire, and the troops supporting it were ordered to fall back to a less exposed position, and the enemy advanced and occupied this work.

Shortly after this the abandoned redoubt was charged by a company of North Carolinians and retaken. In front of it was a house in which the Federal sharpshooters were concealed, and from which they were annoying the Confederates. Five men of the First North Carolina volunteered to burn the house, and, provided with matches and a hatchet, leaped over the works and started for the building, when a volley was fired at them from the road, and young Henry L. Wyatt fell mortally wounded. The rest of the party returned to the Confederate lines, and the house was afterwards fired by a shell from a howitzer.


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Added: 12 years ago.
Topic: Civil War (1861-1865)



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