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Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia

J. Michael Cobb, Edward Hicks and Wythe Holt; Savas Beatie

The “battle” near Big Bethel Church on June 10, 1861, is known, if it is known at all, primarily as a series of ephemeral firsts that  provide fodder for quiz nights at Civil War Round  Tables. No less an authority than Bruce Catton  referred to the engagement as “an unremarkable  little fight.” So why have three reputable scholars  written a book offering “a new and more intricate  picture of the battle itself plus a more contextualized  social and political interpretation of its meaning?”

In the course of this carefully crafted book, their reasoning becomes clear. Although barely 5,500  troops faced each other and casualties on both sides numbered barely  100—with only 19 fatalities—the authors show that Big Bethel’s importance transcended its size and lethality. The authors not only display a  thorough knowledge of the unique geography of the peninsula between  the York and James rivers they take advantage of good local primary  sources to make a strong case that this first planned land engagement of  organized combat forces adumbrated, in many ways, the larger, bloodier  clashes that soon would follow.

A neophyte and indifferently led Union force of about 4,400 men was  enticed out of camps around Fort Monroe to attack a well-­entrenched  and capably­led neophyte Confederate force of about 1,400 men on a  hillock beside the shortest road to Richmond. Three unsuccessful and uncoordinated Federal attacks led to a disorganized retreat and sparked  a Southern celebration out of all proportion to the victory’s importance.  Bravery was evident on both sides, but logistical and tactical acumen  were in short supply. The tactical lesson, the authors conclude, is that  “carefully designed entrenchments, skillful deployment of their forces,  and overwhelming artillery strength enabled a smaller but better commanded Southern contingent to triumph at Bethel.”

The commanders would go on to some fame and much ignominy. Confederate Colonel “Prince” John Bankhead Magruder, who had a fair  for the dramatic and a weakness for the bottle, would be shuffled off  to Texas by Robert E. Lee. Brig. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who used his  political connections to counter his battlefield bungling, held on for most  of the war, until Ulysses S. Grant fired him.

Reading reports, letters and newspaper accounts, one might conclude  that the fight at Big Bethel equaled Shiloh or Antietam. A combination  of friendly fire, poor reconnaissance and intelligence, bad maps and a  complicated battle plan helped doom the Federals, and the Rebels failed  to follow up on their victory.

The authors claim “Big Bethel demonstrated beyond cavil that the  struggle would be intensely pursued and bloody, that Southern arms  were steady, capable, and fierce, and that Northern resolve would  harden rather than fall away.” Unfortunately, the power of foresight  was unavailable to those young men under fire.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.