Battle of Big Bethel

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Battle of Big Bethel Church, Virginia

Battle of Big Bethel

Other Names: Battle of Bethel Church, Battle of Great Bethel

Location: York County and Hampton

Campaign: Blockade of the Chesapeake Bay (May-June 1861)

Date(s): June 10, 1861

Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Pierce [US]; Col. John B. Magruder and Col. D.H. Hill [CS]

Forces Engaged: 4,700 total (US 3,500; CS 1,200)

Estimated Casualties: 87 total (US 79; CS 8)

Result(s): Confederate victory

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

Description: This was the first land battle in Virginia. Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler sent converging columns from Hampton and Newport News against advanced Confederate outposts at Little and Big Bethel. (Also see the Bethel Battlefield Map below.) Confederates abandoned Little Bethel and fell back to their entrenchments behind Brick Kiln Creek, near Big Bethel Church.  The Federals, under immediate command of Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Pierce, pursued, attacked frontally along the road, and were repulsed. Crossing downstream, the 5th New York Zouaves attempted to turn the Confederate left flank, but were repulsed.  Unit commander Col. T. Wynthrop was killed. The Union forces were disorganized and retired, returning to Hampton and Newport News. The Confederates suffered 1 killed, 7 wounded. Bethel also witnessed the First Confederate Soldier Killed in the American Civil War. 

Approximately 125,000 North Carolina soldiers fought during the course of the war; moreover, 40,000 never returned home. At the Battle of Big Bethel, the Old North State had experienced its Baptism of Fire and witnessed its first casualty.

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

Civil War Battle of Big Bethel, Virginia
Battle of Big Bethel Historical Marker.jpg
Battle of Big Bethel Historical Marker

Big Bethel
Battle of Big Bethel.jpg
Alfred R. Waud, artist, June 10, 1861.

(Related reading below.)
 
Sources: National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Library of Congress.

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. "That all changed, and it dramatically changed their lives forever..." Continued below...

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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Recommended Reading: Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865. Description: The author, Prof. D. H. Hill, Jr., was the son of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill (North Carolina produced only two lieutenant generals and it was the second highest rank in the army) and his mother was General “Stonewall” Jackson’s wife's sister. In Confederate Military History Of North Carolina, Hill discusses North Carolina’s massive task of preparing and mobilizing for the conflict; the many regiments and battalions recruited from the Old North State; as well as the state's numerous contributions during the war. Continued below...
During Hill's Tar Heel State study, the reader begins with interesting and thought-provoking statistical data regarding the 125,000 "Old North State" soldiers that fought during the course of the war and the 40,000 that perished. Hill advances with the Fighting Tar Heels to the first battle at Bethel, through numerous bloody campaigns and battles--including North Carolina’s contributions at the "High Watermark" at Gettysburg--and concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Highly recommended!
 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War in North Carolina. Description: Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, and the campaigns and battles themselves were crucial in the grand strategy of the conflict and involved some of the most famous generals of the war. Continued below...

John Barrett presents the complete story of military engagements and battles across the state, including the classical pitched battle of Bentonville--involving Generals Joe Johnston and William Sherman--the siege of Fort Fisher, the amphibious campaigns on the coast, and cavalry sweeps such as General George Stoneman's Raid. "Includes cavalry battles, Union Navy operations, Confederate Navy expeditions, Naval bombardments, the land battles... [A]n indispensable edition." Also available in hardcover: The Civil War in North Carolina.
 
Recommended Reading: Shock Troops of the Confederacy (Hardcover: 432 pages). Description: Fred Ray's Shock Troops of the Confederacy is primarily focused on the "sharpshooter battalions" of the Army of Northern Virginia. In a Civil War context, "sharpshooter" was usually more akin to "skirmisher" than "sniper," although these specialized battalions also used innovative open order assault techniques, especially late in the war. Ray includes, however, a detailed study of Union sharpshooter battalions and Confederate sharpshooters in the West. Continued below...
Remarkably, little has been published about such organizations in the past, so Fred Ray's book offers a unique study of the evolution of Civil War infantry tactics, revealing a more complex, sophisticated approach to the battlefield than is usually understood.
 

Recommended Reading: The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Review: This is one of the most useful guides I've ever read. Virginia was host to nearly one-third of all Civil War engagements, and this guide covers them all like a mini-history of the war. Unlike travel books that are organized geographically, this guide organizes them chronologically. Each campaign is prefaced by a detailed overview, followed by concise (from 1 to 4 pages, depending on the battle's importance) but engrossing descriptions of the individual engagements. Continued below…

These descriptions make this a great book to browse through when you're not in the car. Most sites' summaries touch on their condition--whether they're threatened by development (as too many are) and whether they're in private hands or protected by the park service. But the maps are where this book really stands out. Each battle features a very clear map designating army positions and historical roads, as well as historical markers (the author also wrote “A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers”), parking, and visitors' centers. Best of all, though, many battles are illustrated with paintings or photographs of the sites, and the point-of-view of these pictures is marked on each map!

 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War Battlefield Guide: The Definitive Guide, Completely Revised, with New Maps and More Than 300 Additional Battles (Second Edition) (Hardcover). Description: This new edition of the definitive guide to Civil War battlefields is really a completely new book. While the first edition covered 60 major battlefields, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, the second covers all of the 384 designated as the "principal battlefields" in the American Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report. Continued below...

As in the first edition, the essays are authoritative and concise, written by such leading Civil War historians as James M. McPherson, Stephen W. Sears, Edwin C. Bearss, James I. Robinson, Jr., and Gary W. Gallager. The second edition also features 83 new four-color maps covering the most important battles. The Civil War Battlefield Guide is an essential reference for anyone interested in the Civil War. "Reading this book is like being at the bloodiest battles of the war..."

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