The Battle of Big Bethel
The Battle of Big Bethel was one of the first land battles of the Civil War. Although it was not a major engagement it did show how far the armies needed to go in terms of training and experience. At this point both sides were untrained and inexperienced. They were really at the level of armed mobs rather than any type of military machines.
After the firing on Fort Sumter in mid-April 1861 the Federal government was able to retain the massive Fort Monroe. In May the fort was reinforced by two regiments of Massachusetts volunteer infantry. By the 23rd of the month Maj. Gen. Benjamin Banks had arrived to Fort Monroe and began to move his control in the direction of Hampton.
Ben Butler was a politician turned soldier with almost no experience leading troops or planning campaigns. Robert E. Lee, the Virginia state commander, responded to the Union advance by sending Col. John Magruder to the southern end of the Virginia Peninsula. He fortified a line across the Warwick River and eventually pushed outposts to the area of Big Bethel Church and Little Bethel Church. The were able to impress men into the Confederate army, harass the Union lines and force slaves to work on their fortifications.
Butler and his aide Major Theodore Winthrop devised a plan of attack that was designed to push the Confederates back from their positions around the churches. Their plan called for a coordinated attack at dawn on June 10th. The fact that it required coordination between separate units led by inexperienced Union officers created problems from the start.
The uniforms issue that arose at First Manassas appeared at Big Bethel. One Union regiment wearing blue uniforms fired on a second regiment wearing gray uniforms. The regiment suffered several killed and wounded. The premature attack alerted the Confederates to the Union attack. Massachusetts militia brigadier general Ebenezer W. Peirce continued the advance rather than call off the attack.
The Union attack was uncoordinated and was made over swampy and difficult ground. The Confederate were well-entrenched and were prepared for the attacking Union force with well-placed artillery positions which they used to good advantage. One of the Union regiments attempted a flank attack. When they closed for their attack they found themselves to be unsupported and cut off. Another regiment prematurely withdrew from the field forcing a second unit to withdraw also.
After several more unsuccessful assaults Pierce ordered his forces to withdraw back to their camps. The Union force lost a total of 76 men, including 18 killed and 5 missing. The dead included Major Winthrop and Lt. John T. Greble, the first regular Army officer killed in the conflict. The Confederates suffered 1 killed and 7 wounded.
Although Magruder withdrew his forces back to the Warwick River lines, he had scored an impressive propaganda victory. The Union forces did not advance up the Peninsula until the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.