Civil War Battle, Bethel Church, Virginia

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Battle of Big Bethel, Virginia
(aka Great Bethel; Big Bethel Church)

Battle of Big Bethel, Virginia, by D. H. Hill, Jr.*

"At the convergence of these roads, Colonel Bendix's Seventh New York Regiment mistook Colonel Townsend's Third New York for Confederates and fired upon it. The fire was returned and twenty-one were killed and wounded before the mistake could be corrected."

Big Bethel Battle Map
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1861 Battle of Big Bethel, Virginia, Map

Civil War Battle of Big Bethel Virginia
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Big Bethel Battlefield Virginia

The long struggle that was to cost North Carolina all its wealth, except its land; that was to overthrow its social system; that was to crush to mute despair its home-keepers; that was to cause the almost reckless pouring out of the blood of as proudly submissive, as grimly persistent, as coolly dauntless a body of soldiers as ever formed line of battle opened at Bethel Church, VA. Bethel is only a short distance from Yorktown. It is not a little singular that the great contest with our brethren began only ten miles from the weary struggle of our fathers culminated.

This battle--if with the memory of Gettysburg and Chickamauga still fresh, we can call it a battle--was fought on the 10th of June, 1861. Being the first serious fight of the war, it of course attracted attention out of proportion to its importance. Anticipating attack, Col. D. H. Hill [father of the writer] had, with the First North Carolina Regiment, thrown up an enclosed earthwork on the bank of Marsh Creek. The Confederate position was held by the following forces: Three companies of the Third Virginia, under Lieut.-Col. W. D. Stuart, occupied a slight earthwork to the right and front of the enclosed work; three companies of the Virginia battalion, under Major. E. B. Montague; five pieces of artillery, under major (afterwards secretary of war) G. W. Randolph, of the Richmond Howitzers; and the First North Carolina, under Colonel Hill, occupied the inside of the works. The companies composing the North Carolina regiment, which had the envied distinction of being the initial troops to enter organized battle, were: Edgecombe Guards, Capt. J. L. Bridgers; Hornet's Nest Riflemen (Mecklenburg), Capt. L. S. Williams; Charlotte Grays, Capt. E. A. Ross; Orange Light Infantry, Capt. R. J. Ashe; Buncombe Rifles, Capt. William McDowell; Lafayette Light Infantry (Cumberland), Capt. J. B. Starr; Burke Rifles, Capt. C. M. Avery; Fayetteville Light Infantry, Capt. Wright Huske; Enfield Blues, Capt. D. B. Bell; Southern Stars (Lincoln), Capt. W. J. Hoke. The whole force was nominally under the command of Col. J. B. Magruder, and numbered between 1,200 and 1,400 men.

To surprise and capture this force, Gen. B. F. Butler, commanding on the Virginia coast, sent Gen. E. W. Pierce with five companies of the First Vermont, five companies of the Fourth Massachusetts, two of Carr's Mountain Howitzers, and two pieces of regular artillery under Lieut. J. T. Greble, the whole force amounting, according to Gen. Carr of the Federal army, to 3,500 men. On the night of the 9th, this force was advanced toward the Confederate position on two roads. At the convergence of these roads, Colonel Bendix's Seventh New York Regiment mistook Colonel Townsend's Third New York for Confederates and fired upon it. The fire was returned and twenty-one were killed and wounded before the mistake could be corrected. Thinking it impossible after the firing to surprise the Confederates, General Pierce sent back for reinforcements and then moved on toward Bethel. About 9 o'clock, on the morning of the 10th, the Federals appeared on the field in front of the Southern works, and Greble's Battery took position. A shot from a Parrott gun in the Confederate works ushered in the great Civil War on land. The first Federal attack was on the front. As a result of this attack, Colonel Carr says: "Our troops were soon seeking shelter of the woods after a vain attempt to drive the enemy from the works." This attack was repelled mainly be Randolph's accurate fire, aided by the gallant conduct of Burke's Rifles under Capt. Avery and by the Hornet's Nest Rifles. A little later in the action the Edgecombe Guards, Captain Bridgers, gallantly took a redoubt that had, on the accidental disabling of a gun, been abandoned by the Confederates. In front of this redoubt the Federals had found shelter behind and in a house. Colonel Hill called for volunteers from the Edgecombe Guards to burn this house. Sergt. George H. Williams, Thomas Fallon, John H. Thorpe, H. L. Wyatt and R. H. Bradley promptly offered their services and made a brave rush for the house. On the way a shot from the enemy's rear guard struck Wyatt down. The determined spirit of this heroic young soldier led to a premature death, but by dying he won the undying fame of being the first Confederate killed in action.

An attempt to turn the Confederate left having failed, a force headed by General Butler's aide, the gifted young Connecticut novelist, Maj. Theodore Winthrop, made an attempt on the left, but the Carolinians posted there killed Winthrop at the first fire, and his followers soon rejoined Pierce and the whole force retreated toward Fortress Monroe. Just at the close of action, Lieutenant Greble, who had served his guns untiringly against the Confederates, was killed. The gun that he was firing was abandoned, says General Carr, and his body left beside it, but subsequently recovered by a company that volunteered for that purpose.

Swinton in his "Army of the Potomac" says that while Colonel Warren yet remained on the ground the Confederates abandoned the position. This is far from correct. General Magruder in his report says that Confederate cavalry pursued the Federals for five miles. Colonel Carr, who commanded the Federal rear guard, says: "The pursuit of the Confederates was easily checked." These two reports establish the fact that there was a pursuit and not abandonment. Colonel Magruder further says, "It was not thought prudent to leave Yorktown exposed any longer. I therefore occupied the ground with cavalry; and marched the remainder of my force to Yorktown. So evidently the position was not abandoned while "Warren was yet on the ground." The Confederate loss in this precursor of many bloody fields was 1 killed and 11 wounded; the Federal loss was 18 killed and 53 wounded.

In the South this little victory over a vastly superior force awakened a wild enthusiasm, for it was thought to indicate the future and final success of the cause for which its people were battling.

Virginia Civil War Battle of Big Bethel
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Alfred R. Waud, artist, June 10, 1861.

(Right) Civil War era sketch of the Battle of Big Bethel, Virginia, by Alfred Waud, 1861. Alfred Rudolph Waud (October 2, 1828 – April 6, 1891), born in London, England, was an American artist and illustrator who is best known for his sketches of American Civil War battles (1861 – 1865). Waud, having immigrated to the US in 1850, would become a staff illustrator for New York Illustrated News in 1860 before working for Harper's Weekly in late 1861. Whilst he illustrated the First Battle of Bull Run and numerous other battles, Waud would become only one of two artists who sketched during the Battle of Gettysburg. His depiction of Pickett's Charge remains one of his most notable sketches. Although Waud would illustrate for the duration of the four year war, the artist correspondent would gain much of his notoriety during the latter half of life, when for 30 years he would visit the battlefields of the late conflict. In 1891, Waud would die in Marietta, Georgia while touring battlefields of the South. LOC.
 
*D. H. Hill, Jr., son of Confederate Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill, Sr., was the author of Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865 -- which is a welcome addition to the North Carolina Civil War buff. North Carolina native Daniel Harvey Hill, Sr. -- commonly referred to as D. H. Hill -- was one of only two lieutenant generals from the Tar Heel State. (Lieutenant general was the second highest rank in the Confederate Army.) Hill was also brother-in-law to the renowned "Stonewall" Jackson.
 

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...

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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About Johnny Reb:

"A Civil War classic."--Florida Historical Quarterly

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Editor's Recommendation: The Flags of the Confederacy: An Illustrated History. Description: Devereaux D. Cannon is an expert on vexillology (the study of flags). This book offers a history, profiles, design specifications and an overview of the various flags (national flags, battle flags and naval ensigns) that were utilized by the Confederacy. The book features several pages with glossy photos of the various flags of the Confederacy. It features even the little known flags. Cannon's book has inspired flag makers to revive the old flags in addition to the 3 national flags, the battle flag and the naval ensign. This book is must have for flag gurus, Civil War buffs and southern partisans.

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