Federals Establishes Outposts
On April 17, 1861, a statewide convention of Virginia delegates passed an ordinance of secession declaring the state’s intention to leave the Union, subject to ratification by the general electorate in a poll scheduled for May 23, 1861. As Virginians prepared to cast their ballots, the United States government began reinforcing Fort Monroe between the James and York rivers at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. The day before voters approved the ordinance of secession, Union General Benjamin F. Butler took command of the growing garrison at the strategically important stronghold. As the size of Butler’s garrison grew too large to subsist within the fort, he established fortified outposts, named Camp Hamilton and Camp Butler, at the nearby villages of Hampton and Newport News.
Rebels Dig in Near Big Bethel Church
Alarmed by the federal buildup on the Virginia Peninsula, Robert E. Lee, commander of the Provisional Army of Virginia, instructed Colonel John B. Magruder to establish a defensive line across the peninsula, approximately eight miles north of the federal camps. On June 7, 1861, Magruder ordered Colonel D. H. Hill to fortify the area around Big Bethel Church with nearly 1,400 men. As his force dug in, Magruder deployed approximately fifty soldiers to establish a forward position three miles farther south, at Little Bethel Church.
When Butler learned of Magruder’s movements, he ordered Major Theodore Winthrop to devise a plan to drive the Virginians back up the peninsula. Winthrop’s plan called for two columns, under the overall command of Brigadier General Ebenezer W. Peirce, to depart from Camps Hamilton and Monroe and to converge on Little Bethel during the night of June 9–10, 1861. From there, they would rendezvous with a third column, comprising the 5th New York Infantry Regiment, and move on to Big Bethel.
June 10, 1861: Clash at Big Bethel
The execution of Winthrop’s plan did not go well. As the 7th New York Infantry Regiment arrived at their position, the 3rd New York Infantry Regiment, dressed in grey uniforms, came up behind them. Fearing that Confederates were at their rear, the 7th New York opened up on the 3rd New York, killing two Union soldiers and wounding nineteen others before the firing stopped. Meanwhile, spooked by the firing on their left, the 5th New York withdrew. Making matters even worse, the friendly fire between Union forces alerted Magruder to their presence, eliminating any possibility of surprise.
Rebels Send Federals in Retreat
While the Federals tried to get themselves reorganized, the Virginians at Little Bethel fell back to the defensive works at Big Bethel. After regrouping, the Yankees resumed their march on Big Bethel. Magruder’s forces easily repulsed several direct assaults, sending the Federals fleeing back to Fort Monroe by early afternoon.
Considered by some to be the first major land engagement of the Civil War, the Battle of Big Bethel paled in size compared to many larger and bloodier battles to come during the next four years. Southerners celebrated it as a glorious victory and a harbinger of what many expected to be a short war.
The Rebels suffered only eight casualties (one killed and seven wounded) among nearly 1,400 soldiers engaged. The lone soldier killed was Private Henry Lawson Wyatt, of North Carolina, who has the unenviable distinction of being the first Confederate enlisted man to be killed during the Civil War.
The Federals suffered seventy-six casualties (eighteen killed, fifty-three wounded, and five missing) among approximately 3,500 soldiers engaged. Members of Congress criticized Butler for not personally leading the operation, nearly costing him Senate confirmation of his pending appointment to major general. Despite the defeat, however, the Union maintained its foothold at Fort Monroe, which would be the only United States military installation in Virginia to remain in federal control throughout the Civil War.