The first battle of the Civil War, Big Bethel was a classic example of the hazards awaiting untrained troops attempting to take offensive action. The first of many defeats of Union Major General Benjamin Butler in the War, Big Bethel started off the War in the East with a humiliating little defeat for the Union, an ominous portent of things to come over the next four years.
Placed in charge of Fortress Monroe on the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula on May 23, 1861, Butler began operations to extend Union control into areas near Monroe. On the night of June 9-10, Butler ordered 3500 Union troops in two columns marching from Hampton and Newport News, to perform a night march, and launch a surprise attack on Confederate positions at Little Bethel and Big Bethel. Butler’s plan would have tasked the abilities of well-trained veteran troops, as a coordinated surprise attack by converging columns after a night march is the military equivalent of brain surgery. Expecting the raw troops he commanded to carry this out was simply absurd and an invitation to disaster.
The disaster ensued. A friendly fire incident between the two columns gave the Confederates ample warning of the attack. The 1200 Confederates easily beat off the piecemeal Union attacks. Union casualties were 18 killed and 51 wounded. Confederate losses were 1 killed and 7 wounded. The Confederate press made much of the victory, although it had little meaning other than as the first example of the gross military incompetence of Benjamin Butler that would hamper Union operations for almost the entire war. Here is Butler’s self-serving report of this fiasco:
HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF VIRGINIA,
Fortress Monroe, June 10, 1861.
GENERAL: 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 Newport 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, some of whom had the safeguard and protection of the troops of the United States, and forced them into the rebel ranks, and that they were also gathering up the slaves of citizens who had moved away and left their farms in charge of their negroes, carrying them to work in intrenchments at Williamsburg and Yorktown, I had determined to send up a force to drive them back and destroy their camp, the headquarters of which was this small church.
I had also learned that at a place a short distance farther on, on the road to Yorktown, was an outwork of the rebels on the Hampton side of a place called Big Bethel, a large church near the head of the north branch of Back River; that here was a very considerable rendezvous, with works of more or less strength in process of erection, and from this point the whole country was laid under contribution. Accordingly, I ordered General Pierce, who is in command of Camp Hamilton, at Hampton, to send Duryea’s regiment of zouaves to be ferried over Hampton Creek at 1 o’clock this morning, and to march by the road up to New Market Bridge; thence, crossing the bridge, to go by a by-road, and thus put the regiment in the rear of the enemy and between Big Bethel and Little Bethel, in part for the purpose of cutting him off, and then to make an attack upon Little Bethel. I directed General Pierce to support him from Hampton with Colonel Townsend’s regiment with two mounted howitzers, and to march about an hour later. At the same time I directed Colonel Phelps, commanding at Newport News, to send out a battalion composed of such companies of the regiments under his command as he thought best, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, in time to make a demonstration upon Little Bethel in front, and to have him supported by Colonel Bendix’s regiment with two field pieces. Bendix’s and Townsend’s regiments should effect a junction at a fork of the road leading from Hampton to Newport News, something like a mile and a half from Little Bethel.
I directed the march to be so timed that the attack should be made just at daybreak, and that after the attack was made upon Little Bethel, Duryea’s regiment and a regiment from Newport News should follow immediately upon the heels of the fugitives, if they were enabled to get off, and attack the battery on the road to Big Bethel while covered by the fugitives, or, if it was thought expedient by General Pierce, failing to surprise the camp at Little Bethel, they should attempt to take the work near Big Bethel. To prevent the possibility of mistake in the darkness, I directed that no attack should be made until the watchword was shouted by the attacking regiment, and in case that, by any mistake in the march, the regiments that were to make the junction should unexpectedly meet, and be unknown to each other, also directed that the members of Colonel Townsend’s regiment should be known, if in daylight, by something white worn on the arm.
The troops were accordingly put in motion as ordered and the march was so timed that Colonel Duryea had got in the position noted upon the accompanying sketch, and Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, in command of the regiment from Newport News, had got into the position indicated upon the sketch, and Bendix’s regiment had been posted and ordered to hold the fork of the road with two pieces of artillery, and Townsend’s regiment had got the place indicated just behind, and about to form a junction as the day dawned.
Up to this point the plan had been vigorously, accurately, and successfully carried out. But here, by some strange fatuity, and as yet unexplained blunder, without any word of notice, while Townsend was in column en route, and when the head of the column was within one hundred yards, Colonel Bendix’s regiment opened fire with both artillery and musketry upon Townsend’s column, which in the hurry and confusion was irregularly returned by of Townsend’s men, who feared some that they had fallen into an ambuscade. Townsend’s column immediately retreated to the eminence near by, and were not pursued by Bendix’s men. By this almost criminal blunder two men of Townsend’s regiment were killed, and eight (more or less) wounded. Hearing this cannonading and firing in his rear, Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, not knowing but that his communication might be cut off, immediately reversed his march, as did Colonel Duryea, and marched back to form a junction with his reserves. General Pierce, who was with Townsend’s regiment, fearing that the enemy had got notice of our approach and had posted himself in force on the line of march, and not getting any communications from Colonel Duryea, sent back to me for re-enforcements, and I immediately ordered Colonel Allen’s regiment to be put in motion, and they reached Hampton about 7 o’clock. In the mean time, the true state of facts having been ascertained by General Pierce, the regiment effected a junction and resumed the line of march. At the moment of the firing of Bendix, Colonel Duryea had surprised a part of an outlying guard of the enemy, consisting of three persons, who have been brought in to me. Of course, by this firing, all hope of a surprise upon the camp at Little Bethel was lost, and upon marching upon it it was found to have been vacated, and the cavalry had pressed on toward Big Bethel. Colonel Duryea, however, destroyed the camp at Little Bethel, and advanced. General Pierce then, as he informs me, with the advice of his colonels, thought best to attempt to carry the works of the enemy at Big Bethel, and made dispositions to that effect.
The attack commenced, as I am informed (for I have not yet received any official reports) about half past 9 o’clock. At about 10 o’clock General Pierce sent a note to me, saying that there was a sharp engagement with the enemy, and that he thought he should be able to maintain his position until re-enforcements could come up. Acting upon this information, Colonel Carr’s regiment, which had been ordered in the morning to proceed as far as New Market Bridge, was allowed to go forward. I received this information, for which I had sent a special messenger, about 12 o’clock.
I immediately made disposition from Newport News to have Colonel Phelps, from the four regiments there, to forward aid, if necessary. As soon as these orders could be sent forward I repaired to Hampton, for the purpose of having proper ambulances and wagons for the sick and wounded, intending to go forward and join the command. While the wagons were going forward a messenger came announcing that the engagement had terminated, and that the troops were retiring in good order to camp.
I remained upon the ground at Hampton, personally seeing the wounded put in boats and towed around to the hospital, and ordering forward Lieutenant Morris, with two boat howitzers, to cover the rear of the returning column in case it should be attacked. Having been informed that the ammunition of the artillery had been expended, and seeing the head of the column approach Hampton in good order, I waited for General Pierce to come up. I am informed by him that the dead and wounded had all been brought off, and that the return had been conducted in good order and without haste. I learned from him that the men behaved with great steadiness, with the exception of some few instances, and that the attack was made with propriety, vigor, and courage, but that the enemy were found to be supported by a battery variously estimated as of from fifteen to twenty pieces, some of which were rifled cannon, which were very well served, and protected from being readily turned by a creek in front.
Our loss is very considerable, amounting, perhaps, to forty or fifty, a quarter part of which, you will see, was from the unfortunate mistake, to call it by no worse name, of Colonel Bendix.
I will, as soon as official returns can be got, give a fuller detail of the affair; and will only add now that we have to regret especially the death of Lieutenant Greble, of the Second Artillery, who went out with Colonel Washburn from Newport News, and who very efficiently and gallantly fought his piece until he was struck by a cannon-shot.
I will endeavor to get accurate statements to forward by the next mail.
I think, in the unfortunate combination of circumstances and the result which we experienced, we have gained more than we have lost. Our troops have learned to have confidence in themselves under fire. The enemy have shown that they will not meet us in the open field. Our officers have learned wherein their organization and drill are inefficient.
While waiting for the official reports, I have the honor to submit thus far the information of which I am possessed.
I have the honor to be, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF VIRGINIA,
Fortress Monroe. June 16, 1861.
GENERAL: Upon examination of the official reports of the officers commanding the various corps who were engaged in the skirmish at Big Bethel, I find nothing to add or correct in my former dispatch, in so far as relates to the dispositions for the attack. It now turns out beyond controversy, as I deem, that the firing was commenced upon Colonel Townsend’s by Colonel Bendix’s men. It is not so certain whether Colonel Bendix gave the order to fire or not, although the evidence is strong upon the point that he did so. It was evidently a mistake, and in spite of the precaution that, before any order to fire was to be given in the dark, the watchword “Boston” should be shouted, and that Colonel Townsend’s men should be distinguished by a white badge upon the arm, with which order Colonel Townsend complied. Lieutenant Greble, of the Second Artillery (regulars), whose loss as a gallant officer, thorough soldier, and amiable man we all must deplore, was with Colonel Bendix’s command and participated in the mistake of Colonel Bendix, as I am informed by the colonel’s report. Colonel Townsend has desired a court of inquiry for the purpose of investigating this transaction, with which request, as soon as the exigencies of the public service will permit, I shall comply.
As I stated in the former report, this attack was not intended to enable us to hold Big Bethel as a post, because it was not seriously in our way on any proposed road to Yorktown, and therefore there was never any intention of maintaining it, even if captured. The length of the road and the heat of the weather had caused great fatigue, as many of the troops, the previous night having been cool, had marched with their thickest clothing. I take leave to assure you that every precaution had been taken to prevent notice to the enemy of our approach. A picket guard had been sent out on the night before at 10 o’clock to prevent the egress of persons from our camp in the direction of Yorktown, but we have since learned that information had been communicated to the enemy of our approach, and we believe that we have under arrest the person who communicated the intelligence–a discharged soldier of the United States many years since, who resided in Hampton. If the evidence is satisfactory to a court-martial, he will be dealt with with such severity of punishment as will be a lesson to the many who surround us, and who are engaged in the same nefarious business.
From subsequent information I am certain that the force which was at first in Great Bethel did not exceed a regiment, and had the order been executed which I had given to General Pierce of attack, that, “if we find the enemy and surprise them, we will fire a volley if necessary, not reload, but go ahead with the bayonet,” I have no doubt of the capture of the battery. But in attempting to obtain information upon the road as to the force in Big Bethel, the exaggerated statements of the inhabitants and the negroes as to the numbers intrenched were taken, instead of the estimates and information of the commanding general, so that it was believed by the officers in command and by the men that there were 4,000 or 5,000 there in force. From the intelligence given the enemy, and the unfortunate occurrence of the morning, two regiments to re-enforce them were at last brought up, but not until about the time our troops retired. I make no doubt that the battery would have been taken but for another unfortunate mistake, as reported to me, wherein the colonel of a regiment mistook two companies of his own men, which had been separated from him by a thicket, for a flanking party of the enemy, making a sortie from the battery, and because of that mistake retired; so that it would seem that the skirmish was lost twice because our officers mistook their friends for their enemies. I am informed, and fully believe, that immediately upon the retiring of our troops, for the purpose, as was supposed by the enemy, of turning the flank of the battery, the battery was immediately evacuated, and remained so evacuated until the second day. If it was so done it would be a matter of no consequence, because, as General Scott had been informed, as I have already previously stated, it was no part of our intention to occupy it. The major part of the officers and men behaved with the greatest gallantry and good conduct, and I have to mention in terms of commendation the gallantry and courage of Colonel Townsend, the coolness and firmness of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, and the efficiency of Captain Haggerty, of my staff, who was acting as aid to General Pierce, a part of his own being sick.
The country has to deplore the loss of Maj. Theodore Winthrop, my acting military secretary, who led the advance corps with Colonel Duryea, and who the moment before his death had gone forward on the right with the detachment of Vermont and Massachusetts troops, under order of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, and who at the moment of his death was engaged in finding the best manner of entering the battery, when he fell mortally wounded. His conduct, his courage, his efficiency in the field, were spoken of in terms of praise by all who saw him.
Subsequent knowledge has shown beyond all question that if, at the time our troops retired, an advance had been ordered, the battery would have been taken; but this is the result of subsequent knowledge, and is not to be taken as evidence of the want of efficiency of those in command of our troops. It is a pleasure to be able to announce that our loss was much less even than was reported in my former dispatch, and appears by the official report furnished herewith. Our loss of those permanently injured is twenty-five. I have the honor again to inform you that 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 éclat to the occasion, it would not have added to its substantial results. I have been very careful to procure an accurate account of the dead, wounded, and missing, in order that I may assure those friends who are anxious for the safety of our soldiers and an exact account may be given of all those injured. There is nothing to be gained by any concealment in this regard. The exact truth, which is to be stated at all times, if anything is stated, is especially necessary on such occasions. In this behalf I think we are not to take a lesson from our enemies. I am happy to add that upon sending a message to Yorktown I found that the courtesies of civilized warfare have been and are intended to be extended to us by the enemies of the country now in arms, which in this department at all times shall be fully reciprocated. I have omitted a detailed statement of the movements of the various corps in this attack, because, while it might be interesting, yet, without a map of the ground and details, would serve no useful purpose. I forward herewith the official reports of General Pierce and Colonels Bendix and Townsend, which contain all that may be material.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,