The engagement at Big Bethel was the fist action of the war of consequence enough to be dignified with the name of a battle; the first assault by Union infantry upon rebel entrenchments; and the first experience of Vermont volunteers under fire. As such, and as an affair concerning which many incorrect accounts have been printed, it claims a space in this history out of all proportion to its dimensions or results.
The situation on the Peninsula, on the 8th of June, 1861, was as follows:
The troops under the command of General Butler, at Fortress Monroe and Newport News, had been augmented to an aggregate of about twelve thousand men. At Yorktown, twenty-two miles north, was a Confederate force, several thousand strong, under the command of General Benjamin Huger, late of the United States army. Scouting and foraging parties from both armies had ranged through the region between these points, with little molestation. Twelve miles South of Yorktown, at a point where the "Country road"-the main road between Yorktown and Hampton-crossed the Northwest branch of Back River, was a hamlet and church, known to the Confederate historians as Bethel Church, and to the Union historians as Big Bethel. This point was occupied on the 6th of June, by the First North Carolina Regiment, Colonel D. H. Hill, late of the U. S. Army, and a portion of Randolph's Howitzer Battalion with three howitzers and a rifled gun; to which was added a day or two later the rest of Randolph's Battalion, with a Parrott gun and two howitzers, constituting a force of something over a thousand men with seven pieces of artillery. Hill fortified the position by constructing an enclosed earthwork and outlying curtains and rifle pits, the strength of which was increased by the natural features of the ground. The creek, or "branch," running through a morass in an irregular semicircle, protected the front and flanks of the works. The redoubt commanded the bridge over the creek in its front; and Randolph's guns swept the road an the approaches to the bridge.
Three miles or more south of Big Bethel, and between seven and eight miles from Newport News, was a small wooden meeting house, known as Little Bethel, which had been often occupied by the rebel foragers and cavalry, who were impressing inhabitants of the region into the Confederate service, and taking their slaves to work on the intrenchments at Yorktown and Williamsburg. Desiring to put a stop to these proceedings, and understanding that a rebel outpost of some three hundred men and two field pieces had been established at Little Bethel, General Butler directed Major Theodore Winthrop, a volunteer aid on his staff and his military secretary, to obtain all available information concerning the situation at the two Bethels, and prepare a plan for an expedition against one or both of them. This he did, and it was adopted, with slight modification, by General Butler. That the information obtained by Major Winthrop was not very accurate, may be inferred from the facts, that on the chart, copies of which were supplied to the officers in command of the expedition, Big Bethel was located on the South, instead of the North side of the creek, and that one item of his memorandum was to "blow up the Bethels, if brick." The chief features of the plan were a night expedition, in two columns-one to march from Hampton to the rear of Little Bethel, and the other from Newport News to make a direct attack at day break on Little Bethel. Having captured the force supposed to be there, the two columns were to unite, and, supported by other regiments which were to march at a later hour, were to push on to Big Bethel and assault the Confederate camp there. To prevent collisions between friends during he night march, the men of the supports were to wear "something white" on the left arm, and before any order to fire, the watchword "Boston" was to be shouted.
On the other side, Colonel J. B. Magruder, late of the United States Army, arrived at Big Bethel June 8th, and took command of the Confederate force there. He was reinforced on the morning of the 10th, by two Virginia battalions, each of three companies, under Major E. B. Montague, and Lieutenant Colonel Stuart. He had also three companies of "dragoons," making an aggregate of about fifteen hundred men.
On Sunday evening, June 9th, under General Butler 's orders, issued to Brigadier General E. W. Pierce of Massachusetts, in command of Camp Hamilton near Fortress Monroe, and to Colonel Phelps, the Fifth New York, better known as "Duryea's Zouaves," was ferried across the Hampton River and marched from Hampton at twenty minutes past midnight on the morning of the 10th. Duryea was directed to march out by the County road towards Little Bethel and then to move by by-roads to the rear of that point. As there was no by-road available for such a movement, the latter direction could not be obeyed. He marched out to New Market Bridge, across the Southwest Branch of Back River, and leaving there a guard pushed on in the small hours of the morning by the County road toward Little Bethel. A little before 1 o'clock, A. M., Lieutenant Colonel Washburn started from Newport News with a battalion of five companies of the First Vermont and five companies of the Fourth Massachusetts. The Vermont companies were the Woodstock company, Captain W. W. Pelton; the Bradford company, Captain D. K. Andross; the Northfield company, Captain W. H. Boynton; the Burlington company, Captain D. B. Peck; and the Rutland company, Captain W. Y. W. Ripley, numbering 272 rank and file. The battalion numbered 510 muskets. Two colored guides led the way in charge of Lieutenant Roswell Farnham, who, though on detached duty, had made special request to accompany the expedition. Washburn was followed by a detachment of three companies of the Seventh New York (a German regiment), Colonel Bendix, with two brass field pieces-one twelve pounder drawn by mules, and one six pounder drawn by hand. Lieutenant John T. Greble, Second U. S. Heavy Artillery, with a squad of eleven regular artillerists, accompanied the detachment to serve the guns. The second column marched quietly and rapidly, reaching the junction of the road from Newport News with the County road, about a mile beyond New Market Bridge, shortly after Duryea's Zouaves had passed that point. At the junction Bendix was lest with his detachment and the smaller field piece, to guard the rear.
An hour and a half after Duryea left Hampton, General Pierce marched from the same point with the Third New York Regiment, Colonel Townsend, and an artillery company belonging to the Second New York Regiment with two field pieces. This force reached the junction of the roads shortly before daybreak, just as Bendix was taking position there. Bendix's force was seen by General Pierce and Colonel Bendix's force was seen by General Pierce and Colonel Townsend in the dim light; and taking it as a matter of course to be a part of the expedition they marched steadily on. Not so Bendix. Seeing the mounted men of General Pierce 's staff at the head of the column, he took them and the shadowy mass behind to be a body of rebel cavalry, and opened on them at once with both musketry and artillery. Twenty-one men of the Third New York fell by this fire, two being killed, and four officers and fifteen men wounded. Townsend's men, astonished by this reception, broke right and left from the road, down which Bendix was firing canister, into the fields, and thence returned for a few moments a scattering and ineffective fire. They soon regained some sort of formation, and were then withdrawn by General Pierce across New Market Bridge. They halted on the higher ground on the south side of the Branch, and General Pierce, not doubting that they had encountered a considerable force of the enemy, despatched an aid to Hampton for reinforcements.
When Bendix's unlucky and noisy blunder woke the early morning echoes, Duryea had reached Little Bethel, finding no enemy there, and his skirmishers, under Captain Judson Kilpatrick, had captured a picket post consisting of an officer and two or three men, within a mile or two of Big Bethel. Washburn was about a mile behind Duryea. Each at once halted, and as the firing behind them kept up, supposing that their supports were attacked, each hurried back at double quick to their assistance. When Washburn reached the scene of action, the smoke still hung over the fields though the firing had ceased. Washburn marched past Bendix and formed his battalion between him and the supposed enemy. He placed a gun in the road, supported by two companies, sent a company of Massachusetts riflemen into the woods on his left, and formed the rest of his force in the open field and across the road. As daylight broke, Townsend's regiment was discovered across the river; and beginning to surmise that it might be a friendly force, Washburn ordered his men to shout "Boston." Receiving no response he advanced his line, and was fired upon by one of Townsend's howitzers, without damage. About this time some haversacks marked with the number and initials of the Third New York, were picked up by some of the Vermonters, and the further discovery that a house near by contained nine wounded and dying men of that regiment left no longer a doubt that it had been a fight between friends. The intelligence was soon conveyed by Washburn's skirmishers to Townsend's men. Duryea arrived about this time, and daylight having now fully come, the mistake and the situation became clear to all.
Gen. Pierce now assumed chief command, and called a consultation. Colonels Washburn and Duryea advised a return to camp. They felt that the affair had made a bad start, and that no surprise of the enemy was now possible. They thought it probable that the force at Big Bethel would be either withdrawn or heavily reinforced from Yorktown; and that with the failure of the movement against Little Bethel the expedition was properly at an end. Gen. Pierce, however, insisted that his orders required that a demonstration be made against Big Bethel and accordingly ordered an advance to that point. Meantime the men had breakfasted, and at 7o'clock the column again moved to the front, the Zouaves, as before, leading the advance. A short halt was made at Little Bethel, where, in obedience to instructions, the meeting house was burned. Between 8 and 9 o'clock, the column halted again, in sight of the Confederate works at Big Bethel.
It is to be noted that thus far on each side there was extreme ignorance of the strength of the opposing forces. At 3 o'clock that morning word, sent by a resident of Hampton, reached Magruder that a considerable federal force had marched out from Camp Hamilton. Probably supposing that it was a reconnoisance, and hoping to surprise and cut it off, Magruder immediately marched out to meet it, with six hundred men of the First North Carolina regiment and two howitzers. He had gone nearly to Little Bethel, when his scouts brought him such intelligence of the numbers of the Federals that he thought best to fall back in haste to his earthworks. Here he awaited attack. Stuart's and Montague's battalions, which had just arrived from Yorktown, were posted so as to extend his line to his right, and had time to erect temporary breastworks, facing a ravine in their front. A howitzer was placed in front, across the creek, in the road, supported by a single company.
On the other side Gen. Pierce had obtained from women in the farm houses and from contrabands, information that there was a force at Big Bethel, placed by the lowest estimate at four thousand, and by the highest at over twenty thousand. A reconnoissance by Captain Kilpatrick, commanding the advance guard of Duryea's regiment, brought him almost equally incorrect intelligence. Kilpatrick reported that he had "found the enemy with about from three thousand to five thousand men, posted in a strong position on the opposite side of the bridge, three earthworks, and a masked battery on the right and left, in advance of the stream thirty pieces of artillery and a large force of cavalry."
General Pierce was much excited by these reports and was indiscreet enough to allow his trepidation to become apparent to all about him. He announced loudly that his scouts had brought him word that "the enemy had twenty guns in battery," dispatched an aid to Fortress Monroe for reinforcements, post haste, and gave other orders which indicated to all within hearing that he considered his command engaged in a desperate undertaking.
These enormously exaggerated reports of the enemy's force, spreading rapidly through the ranks, were of course not cheering for the members of a force which numbered less than two thousand men, with four field pieces. The men, moreover, were exceedingly weary. As unused to marching as to fighting, they had marched and countermarched for ten hours. Their ardor had been dampened by the unfortunate encounter of the night; and they were now to attack intrenchments, under a General whom all knew to be as inexperienced as themselves, and whose present nervousness was painfully obvious. It is not surprising that most of them were willing to keep pretty closely under shelter of the woods, which skirted the road on either side, and at some points extended up to the marsh in front.
The assault opened a little after 9 o'clock, and a desultory engagement of about four hours' duration followed. The four field pieces were taken to the front and stationed in the road leading to the bridge, and were subsequently advanced to within two hundred yards of the enemy's main work. They maintained, under the direction of Lieutenant Greble, a spirited fire, as long as their ammunition lasted. Duryea's regiment was first stationed in the woods on the right of the road and was then moved to the open ground on the left of the road. Two companies of the First Vermont, (Captain Ripley's and Captain Peck's) were detached from Washburn's battalion, and sent into the woods on the left of Duryea, to protect his flank. They were shelled by the enemy; but suffered no loss and did no firing. Duryea made several advances towards the works in front; but was prevented from charging them by the creek, which was supposed to be non-fordable, and contented himself with maintaining an ineffective musketry fire. He had six men killed and thirteen wounded-the largest loss sustained by any regiment from the enemy's fire.
Townsend was sent to the left of Duryea, with directions to advance upon, and if practicable, assault the right of the enemy's position. The movement was destined to failure, for the creek was considerably wider at this point than below, and he could not have reached the rear of the enemy's right, except by a long detour. It reached a sudden termination, by a blunder similar to that of Bendix the night before, though less excusable because made in broad day light. As his regiment, in line of battle, was closing up on his skirmishers, his left company became separated from the line by a farm ditch, skirted by a line of bushes. Seeing the bayonets of the company over the bushes, Townsend took them for a hostile force on his flank, and hastily marched his regiment back to his former position.
The final and really the only formidable assault on the works was made by Colonel Washburn. Shortly before noon, he was directed by General Pierce to take his battalion round through the woods to his right and attack the left of the enemy's works. His command had been lessened nearly one half by the detaching of companies to act as skirmishers in other parts of the field, and consisted of six companies, mustering less than 300 muskets. With these he marched for some distance through a piece of tangled woods, twice coming out to the open ground in sight of the enemy's batteries, only to find that a further detour was necessary in order to bring him fairly on their left. Reaching finally a point from which he thought the works could be approached, he found a dry ditch, dug for a drain, leading towards the creek. Through this he took his men for some distance. Then, leaving this cover, he pushed straight across the marsh bordering the creek, leading the column himself, the men shouting: "Follow the Colonel!" The creek was found to be a dark and apparently deep stream; but the men took it without hesitation, and found it fordable. Holding up their cartridge boxes from the water, there about waist deep, they went through it, and straight forward across the open marsh beyond till Washburn found before him a wooded ridge ten or twelve feet high, under the cover of which he deployed his command. Thus far not a shot had been fired at them, and their approach was apparently unobserved by the enemy.
A brief examination, made by Captain Pelton from the top of the ridge, disclosed the enemy's works in full view, perhaps ten rods distant, rifle pits and parapet being thickly lines with troops. Washburn at once ordered his command to the top of the bank, and announced his presence by a fire of musketry, so sharp and continuous that for twenty minutes hardly a man of the enemy ventured to show his head above the breastworks. The reports of the confederate officers show that the entire loss received on their side during the battle-stated by them to have been but one man killed, nine wounded, and eight artillery horses killed or disabled-was from this fire.
After the firing began, about sixty of Bendix's Germans joined Washburn's line. With this exception, no supports were sent to him, although General Pierce had now been reinforced by the First New York Regiment, Colonel Allen, which had been sent up from Hampton by General Butler. Morever the demonstrations against the enemy's front and right, instead of being more vigorously pushed, now wholly ceased. General Magruder was thus enable d to strengthen his left by troops and guns brought from other parts of his lines; and soon in addition to the thickening patter of bullets, shell and grape began to rattle through the trees above the heads of Washburn's men. About this time a bugle across he creek sounded a retreat, and Washburn ordered his men to cease firing. He perceived that not a musket was being fired in any other part of the field, and that the attack had apparently ended, so far as any command but his own was concerned. Obeying the recall, he withdrew his command. He retired slowly across the log ground, re-forded the creek, halted in the woods to collect the stragglers, and then marched back to his first position on the left of the main road, to find that a general retread had been ordered. The Zouaves were already out of sight, and Townsend's regiment was following them on the double quick. Reporting to General Pierce for orders, Colonel Washburn was informed that the attempt to take Big Bethel was abandoned; and that the Second New York Regiment, which had just arrived from Hampton, would cover the rear. Colonel waited till the wounded men had been placed in wagons and taken off, and till the artillery had been withdrawn; and then, in good order, and with every man of his command in the ranks, except six, two of whom were killed, three wounded and one missing, took his lace in the retiring column.
The march up to Big Bethel, in the cool of the night and morning, in the excitement of a first march into battle, and in the confidence of victory, had been a not unpleasant experience. The return, in the dust and heat of a southern summer day, in the exhaustion of hunger and the depression of defeat, was a different thing. The weary tramp of twelve miles was relieved only by the thoughtfulness of colonel Phelps, who sent out wagons loaded with hard bread and smoked herring to meet the hungry troops. The regiment reached their quarters at Newport News and Camp Hamilton, about six o'clock, tired, footsore and disgusted, the Vermont and Massachusetts companies, however, feeling that none of the mistakes of the expedition were to be laid at heir door or that of their immediate commander.
A few incidents of this affair are worthy of mention. Soon after Washburn's battalion opened fire on the enemy's left, a stranger joined the ranks of the Northfield company, and taking a musket from a soldier, began firing rapidly. When the order to cease firing came, he stepped forward, as did others, on the top of the bank, to give the enemy a parting shot. As he fired, a ball struck him in the left breast. Privates D. E. Boyden and John M. Stone of the Northfield company caught him as he fell and bore him to the foot of the ridge, when he expired without word or groan. Boyden and Stone opened his blouse, discovered from his uniform that he was an officer and then followed their company across the creek. The next day an order read at dress parade announced that Major Theodore Winthrop, of General Butler's staff, was missing, and called for information concerning him. The description thereupon given by Boyden and Stone of the man who expired in their arms, left no doubt that it was Winthrop. A Flag of truce sent by General Butler to Big Bethel next day learned that Winthrop's body had been buried where he fell. It was subsequently disinterred and restored to his friends.
When the Woodstock Company started back across the creek, Private Reuben M. Parker, seeing Winthrop's body and supposing it to be that of a wounded man, returned to assist him. While thus separated from the battalion, he was surrounded and captured by a squad of the enemy. He was taken to Yorktown and thence to Richmond, where ten days later he was exchanged and rejoined his company. He always claimed that he was the first prisoner formally exchanged in the war. His observations while within the rebel works at Big Bethel, satisfied him that the enemy's loss was considerably larger than was reported or ever acknowledged by them.
The loss of Lieutenant Greble was only less mourned than that of Winthrop. He was killed by a piece of a shrapnel shell, fired at the last discharge but one from the redoubt, which struck him in the head, taking off part of the skull. Two artillerists were killed by the same shell.
As the Vermont companies halted near Little Bethel in the early morning, a man stepped out of a house near the road and fired upon the column with a rifle, the ball passing through the clothes of Sergeant Sweet, of the Woodstock company. A squad rushed for the bushwhacker and he was speedily captured, and Lieutenant Hiram Stevens, the tall Adjutant of the First Vermont, who had accompanied the battalion, administered to him on the spot the rather unmilitary punishment of a kicking. He proved to be an officer of a Virginia militia regiment, named Whiting. His house, with its contents, was burned, Stevens and Colonel Duryea, who came up at the time, applying the match. Later in the war bushwhacking often received a severer, if not more summary punishment.
Upon the retreat from Big Bethel, three companies of Confederate cavalry followed the rear of the Federal column, at a safe distance, as far as New Market Bridge. Magruder was reinforced by the arrival of a Louisiana regiment about the close of the action; but fearing a return of the Federal troops in stronger force, he evacuated the works at Big Bethel that night and withdrew his command to Yorktown.
Reviewing this action, it is to be noted that the enemy was commanded by trained and experienced officers; that the disparity in numbers, which for the first three hours of the fight, was less than 500, was more than made up to the confederates by the protection of their works and superiority in artillery; and that while they were entitled to the credit of repulsing superior numbers, they inflicted astonishingly little damage upon their assailants. The union loss was but 16 killed and 34 wounded by the enemy's fire.
On the union side, the primal blunder was General Butler's , in committing a force not an officer of which had ever been under fire, to the command of a men without experience or the natural qualities fitting him for command. After this all the other blunder became easy.
The risky operation of marching raw troops, by night and by different roads, to a common point, was disapproved by Colonel Phelps; and when the firing near New Market Bridge was heard at Newport News, he said that it was a collision between portions of the federal force. Colonel Phelps also disapproved the making up of the column from Newport News by detachments from different regiments. Had Phelps been in chief command at Big Bethel, it is altogether probable that he would not have accepted the statements of Virginia women, or Kilpatrick's crazy guesses, as the measure of the rebel force; that he would not have attempted to carry by direct assault, works well armed with artillery, and strengthened by morasses, ravines, and a natural moat; and that he would have made a different story of Big Bethel. As it was the whole affair was a series of blunders, redeemed only by the general good behavior of the troops. To Washburn's coolness and courage, there is ample testimony from both friends and strangers. His own opinion of the affair was thus expressed, in a private letter, written two days after the battle: "My men behaved like veterans. Not a man of y command flinches, or hesitated to go where I ordered him. If I had been supported, I would have charged, and I believe I could have carried the works. But I had no support. We had no head. I was not notified of the orders to retreat, and was left to fight alone with my slender force against the entire force of the enemy; and when I ceased firing I was three quarters of a mile from the point where I first formed. * * * All the different commands behaved nobly; but there was no reconnoissance, no plan of attack, and no concert of action. Hence the enemy were left to concentrate their whole force first against the Zouaves, then against Townsend's regiment, then against my men. A little military skill in the General, a little regard to the simplest rules of attack, would have rendered our charge successful. As it was, it was a failure-an egregious blunder." This opinion will stand with that of a Massachusetts officer, that "if other troops had done their duty as well and gone as far as those from Massachusetts and Vermont, the name of Big Bethel would not have headed a long list of federal repulses."
Benedict, George Grenville. Vermont in the Civil War. Burlington VT: Free Press Association, 1888, vol. 1, pp. 42-57.
See also, correspondence from 1st Lieutenant Charles A. Webb, 1st Vt. Inf.