1st North Carolina Infantry Regiment, Battle of Big Bethel, Report of Colonel D. H. Hill

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 Battle of Big Bethel, Report of Colonel D. H. Hill

Battle of Big Bethel Map
Battle of Big Bethel  Map.jpg
Bethel Civil War Battlefield Map

First North Carolina Infantry

Report of Col. D. H. Hill, First North Carolina Infantry.

SIR: I have the honor to report that, in obedience to orders from the colonel commanding, I marched on the 6th instant, with my regiment and four pieces of Maj. Randolph's battery, from Yorktown, on the Hampton road, to Bethel Church, nine miles from Hampton.

We reached there after dark on a wet night, and slept
without tents. Early on the morning of the 7th I made a reconnaissance of the
ground, preparatory to fortifying. I found a breach for Back River on our front,
and encircling our right flank. On our left was a dense and almost impassable
wood, except about one hundred and fifty yards of old field. The breadth of the
road, a thick wood, and narrow cultivated field covered our rear. The nature of
the ground determined me to make an inclosed work, and I had the invaluable aid
of Lieut.-Col. Lee, of my regiment, in its plan and construction. Our position
had the inherent defect of being commanded by an immense field immediately in
front of it, upon which the masses of the enemy might be readily deployed.
Presuming that an attempt would be made to carry the bridge across the stream,
a battery was made for its especial protection, and Maj. Randolph placed his guns
so as to sweep all the approaches to it. The occupation of two commanding eminences
beyond the creek and on our right would have greatly strengthened our position,
but our force was too weak to admit of the occupation of more than one for them. A
battery was laid out on it for one of Randolph's howitzers. We had only twenty-five
spades, six axes, and three picks, but these were busily plied all day and night
of the 7th and all day on the 8th. On the afternoon of the I earned that a marauding
arty of the enemy was within a few miles of us. I called for a party of third-four
men to drive them back. Lieut. Roberts, of Company F, of my regiment, promptly
responded, and in five minutes his command was en route. I detached Maj. Randolph
with one howitzer to in them, and Lieut.-Col. Lee, First Regiment North Carolina
Volunteers, requested and was granted permission to take command of the whole.
After a march of five miles they came across the marauders busy over the spoils
of a plundered house. A shell soon put the plunderers to flight, and they were
chased over New Market Bridge, where our little force was halted, in consequence
for the presence of considerable body situated on the other side. Lieut.-Col. Lee
brought in one prisoner. How many of the enemy were killed and wounded is not known.
None of our command was hurt. Soon after Lieut.-Col. Lee left a citizen came dashing
in with the information that seventy-five marauders were on the Back River road.
I called for Capt. McDowell's company (E), of the First Regiment of North Carolina
Volunteers, and in three minutes it was in hot pursuit. Lieut. West, of the Howitzer
Battalion, with one piece, was detached to join them, and Maj. Lane, of my regiment,
volunteered to assume command of the whole. After a wary march they encountered,
dispersed, and chased the wretches over the New Market Bridge--this being the second
race on the same day over the New Market course, in both of which the Yankees reached
the goal first. Maj. Lane brought in one prisoner. Reliable citizens reported that
two cart loads and one buggy load of wounded, were taken into Hampton. We had not a
single man killed or wounded. Col. Magruder came up that evening assumed command.

On Sunday, the 9th, a fresh supply of tools enabled us to put more men to
work, and when not engaged in religious duties, the men worked vigorously
on the in entrenchments. We were aroused at 3 o'clock on Monday morning
for a general advance upon the enemy, and marched three and a half miles,
when we learned that the foe, in large force, was within a few hundred yards
of us. We fell back hastily upon our entrenchments, and awaited the arrival
of our invaders. Lieut.-Col. Stuart, of the Third Regiment, having come with
some one hundred and eighty men, was stationed on the hill on the extreme
right, beyond the creek and Company G, of my regiment was also thrown
over the stream to protect the howitzer under Capt. Brown. Capt. Bridges,
of Company A, First North Carolina Regiment took post in the dense woods
beyond and to the left of the road. Maj. Montague, with three companies of his
battalion, was ordered up from the rear, and took post on our right, beginning a
the church and extending along the entire front on that side. This fine body of
men and the gallant command of Lieut.-Col. Stuart worked with great rapidity,
and in hour constructed temporary shelters, against the enemy's fire. Just at
9 o'clock a.m. The heavy columns of the enemy were seen approaching rapidly
and in good order, but when Randolph opened upon them at 9.15 their organization
was completely broken up. The enemy promptly replied with his artillery, firing
briskly but wildly. He made an attempt at deployment on our right of the road,
under cover of some houses and a paling. He was, however, promptly driven
back by our artillery, a Virginia company--the Life Guards--and Companies B
and G of my regiment. The enemy attempted no deployment within musketry
range during the day, except under cover of woods fences, or paling. Under
cover of the trees he moved a strong column to an old ford, some three-quarters
of a mile below, where I had placed a picket of some forty men. Col. Magruder
sent Capt. Werth's company, of Montague's command, with one howitzer, under
Sergeant Crane, to drive back this column, which was done by a single shot from
the howitzer. Before this a priming wire had been broken in the vent of the howitzer
commanded by Capt. Brown, and rendered it useless.

A force estimated at one thousand five hundred was now attempting to outflank
us and get in the rear of Lieut.-Col. Stuart's small command. He was accordingly
directed to fall back, and the whole of our advanced troops were withdrawn. At
this critical moment I directed Lieut.-Col. Lee to call Capt. Bridgers out of the
swamp, and ordered him to reoccupy the nearest advanced work, and I ordered  Capt.
Ross, Company C, First Regiment North Carolina Volunteers, to the support of
Lieut.-Col. Stuart. These two captains, with their companies, crossed over to
Randolph's battery, under a most heavy fire, in a most gallant manner. As Lieut.-Col.
Stuart had withdrawn, Capt. Ross was detained at the church, near Randolph's battery.
Capt. Bridgers, however, crossed over and drove the zouaves out of the advanced howitzer
battery, and reoccupied it. It is impossible to overestimate this service. It decided
the action in our favor.

In obedience to orders from Col. Magruder, Lieut.-Col. Stuart marched back,
and in spite of the presence of a foe ten times his superior in number, resumed
in the most heroic manner possession of his entrenchments. A fresh howitzer was
carried across and place in the battery and Capt. Avery, of Company G, was directed
to defend it at all hazards.

We were now as secure as the beginning of the fight, and as yet had no man killed.
The enemy, finding himself foiled on our right flank, next made his final demonstration
on our left. A strong column, supposed to consist of volunteers from different, and
under command of Capt. Winthrop, aide-de-camp to Gen. Butler, crossed over the creek
and appeared at the angle on our left. Those in advance had put on our distinctive badge
of a white band around the cap, and they cried out repeatedly, ''Don't fire.'' This ruse
was practiced to enable the whole column to get over the creek and form in good order.
They now began to cheer most lustily, thinking that our work was open at the gorge, and
that they could get in by a scudded rush. Companies B and C, however, dispelled the
illusion by a cool, deliberate, and well directed fire. Col. Magruder sent over portions
of Companies G, C, and H of my regiment to our support and now began as cool firing on
our side as was ever witnessed.

The three field officers of the regiment were present and but grew shots were
fired without their permission, the men repeatedly saying, ''May I fire? ''I think I
can bring him.'' They were all in high glee, and seemed to enjoy it as much as
boys do rabbit-shooting. Capt. Winthrop, while most gallantly urging on his men,
was shot through the heart, when all rushed back with the utmost precipitation.
So far as my observation extended he was the only one of the enemy who exhibited
even an approximation to courage during the whole day.

The fight at the angle lasted but twenty minutes. It completely discouraged
the enemy, and he made no further effort at assault. The house in front,
which had several as a hiding place for the enemy, was now fired by a shell
from a howitzer, and the outhouses and palings were soon in a blaze. As all
shelter was now taken from him, the enemy called in his troops, and started
back for Hampton. As he had left sharpshooters behind him in the woods on
our left, the dragoons could not advance until Capt. Hoke, of Company K,
First North Carolina Volunteers, that thoroughly explored them. As soon as
he gave the assurance of the road being clear, Capt. Douthatt, with some one
hundred dragoons, in compliance wit Col. Magruder's orders, pursued. The enemy
in his haste threw away hundreds of canteens, haversacks, overcoats, &c.; even
the dead were thrown out of the wagons. The pursuit soon became a chase, and for
the third time the enemy won the race over the New Market course. The bridge
was torn up behind him and our dragoons returned to camp. There were not quite
eight hundred of my regiment engaged in the fight, and not one-half of these
drew trigger during the day. All remained manfully at the posts assigned them
and not a man in the regiment behaved badly. The companies not engaged were as
much exposed and rendered equal service with those participating in the fight.
They deserve equally the thanks of the country. In fact, if is the most trying
ordeal to which soldiers can be subjected, to receive a fire which their orders
forbid them to return. Had a single company left its post our works would have
been exposed; and the constancy and discipline of the unengaged companies cannot
be too highly commended. A detachment of fifteen cadets from the North Carolina
Military Institute defended the howitzer under Lieut. Hudnall, and acted with great
coolness and determination.

I cannot speak in too high terms of my two fields officers, Lieut.-Col. Lee and
Maj. Lane. Their services have been of the highest importance since taking the
field to the present moment. My thanks, too, are due, in an especial manner, to
Lieut. J. M. Poteat, adjutant, and Lieut. J. W. Ratchford aide, both of them
cadets of the North Carolina Institute at Charlotte. The latter received a
contusion in the forehead from a grape shot, which nearly cost him his life. Capt.
Bridgers' Company, A; Lieut. Owens, commanding Company B; Capt. Ross, Company C;
Capt. Ashe, Company D; Capt. McDowell, Company E; Capt. Starr, Company F; Capt.
Avery, Company G; Capt. Huske, Company H; Lieut. Whittaker, commanding Company I;
Capt. Hoke, Company K, displayed great coolness, judgment, and efficiency. Lieut.
Gregory is highly spoken of by Maj. Lane for soldierly bearing on the 8th. Lieuts.
Cook and McKethan Company H, crossed over under a heavy fire to the assistance of
the troops attacked on the left. So did Lieut. Cohen, Company C. Lieut. Hoke has
shown great zeal, energy, and judgment as an engineer officer on various occasions.

Corporal George Williams, Privates Henry L, Wyatt, Thomas Fallan, and John Thorpe,
Company A, volunteered to burn the house which concealed the enemy. They behaved
with great gallantry. Wyatt was killed and the other three were recalled.

Sergeant Thomas J. Stewart and Private William McDowell, Company A, reconnoitered
the position of the enemy, and went far in advance of our troops. Private J. W. Potts,
of Company B, is specially mentioned by his company commander; so are Sergeant William
Elmo, Company C; Sergeants C. L. Watts, W. H. McDade, Company D; Sergeant J. M. Young,
Corporal John Dingler, Privates G. H. A. Adams, R. V. Gudger G. W. Werly, John C. Wright,
T. Y. Little, J. F. Jenkins, Company E; R. W. Stedman, M. E. Dye, H. E. Benton, J. B.
Smith, Company F; G. W. Buhmann, James C. McRae, Company H.

Casualties.--Private Henry L. Wyatt, Company K, mortally wounded; Lieut. J. W.
Ratchford, contusion; Private Council Rodgers, Company H, severely wounded; Private
Charles Williams, Company H, severely wounded; Private S. Patterson, Company D,
slightly wounded; Private William White, Company K, wounded; Private Peter Poteat,
Company G, slightly wounded.

I cannot close this too elaborate report without speaking in the highest terms of
admiration of the Howitzer Battery and its most accomplished commander, Maj. Randolph.
He has no superior as an artillerist in any country, and his men displayed the utmost
skill and coolness. The left howitzer, under Lieut. Hudnall, being nearest my works,
came under my special notice. Their names are as follows:

Lieut. Hudnall, commanding (wounded), Sergeant B. S. Hughes, G. H. Pendleton, R. P.
Pleasants, William M. Caldwell, George W. Hobson, William McCarthy, H. C. Shook (wounded)
L. W. Timberlake, George P. Hughes, John Worth (wounded), D. B. Clark.

Permit Regiment North Carolina Volunteers. Their patience under trial, perseverance under
toil, and courage under fire have seldom been surpassed by veteran troops. Often working
night and day--sometimes without tents and cooking utensil--a murmur has never escaped
them to my knowledge. They have done a large portion of the work on the entrenchments at
Yorktown, as well as those a Bethel. Had all of the regiments in the field worked with the
same spirit, there would not be an assailable point in Virginia. After the battle they shook
hands affectionately with the spades, calling them ''clever fellows and good friends.''

The men are influenced by high moral and religious sentiments, and their conduct has
furnished another example of the great truth that he who fears God will ever do his duty
to his country.

The confederates had in all about one thousand two hundred men in the action. The enemy
had the regiments of Col. Duryea (zouaves), Col. Carr, Col. Allen, Col. Bendix, and Col.
Wardrop (Massachusetts), from Old Point Comfort, and five companies of Phelps; regiment from
Newport New. We had never more than three hundred actively engaged at any one time. The
Confederate loss was eleven wounded; of these, one mortally. The enemy must have lost some
three hundred. I could not, without great disparagement of their courage, place their loss
at a lower figure. It is inconceivable that five thousand men should make so precipitate a
retreat without having sustained at least this much of a reserves.

Let us devoutly thank the living God for His wonderful interposition in our favor, and evidence,
our gratitude by the exemplariness of our lives.

With great respect,

D. H. HILL,
Col. First Regiment North Carolina Volunteers.

Col. J. B. MAGRUDER, Commander York Line.

1861 Virginia Civil War Battlefield Map
1861 Civil War Virginia Map.gif
1861 Civil War Virginia Map

Source: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, CHAP. IX. ENGAGEMENT AT BIG BETHEL, VA. PAGE 93-2 [Series I. Vol. 2. Serial No. 2.]

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Recommended Reading: More Terrible than Victory: North Carolina's Bloody Bethel Regiment, 1861-65 (368 Pages). Description: Craig Chapman presents the definitive history of the First North Carolina Volunteers / 11th Regiment North Carolina Troops--the legendary Bethel Regiment. The 1st North Carolina Volunteers struck history as it engaged in the Civil War's first land battle and witnessed the first soldier killed in the great conflict. Chapman conveys the compelling history of these brave men as they left hearth and home in defense of their state, beliefs and ideals. Most of the unit's raw, young recruits had never traveled outside of North Carolina, nor fired a weapon in combat. Continued below...

"That all changed, and it dramatically changed their lives forever..." After an enlistment of six months, North Carolina's First Regiment disbanded. Most of the men then enlisted in the Eleventh NC Regiment, commonly referred to as the Bloody Bethel Regiment, and fought in the bloodiest battles and campaigns of the Civil War.

About the Author: Craig S. Chapman commands one of the North Carolina National Guard infantry battalions that traces its lineage to the Eleventh Regiment North Carolina Troops, the unit that started out as the First North Carolina Volunteers and nicknamed the Bethel Regiment. Chapman resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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