Friday, June 10, 2011

The Civil War: 150 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Big Bethel

The Battle of Big Bethel, also known as the Battle of Bethel Church or Great Bethel was an American Civil War battle that took place on June 10, 1861, in Hampton and York County, Virginia, (near the present-day unincorporated community of Tabb).

Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler sent converging columns from Hampton and Newport News against advanced Confederate outposts at Little and Big Bethel churches. Confederates abandoned Little Bethel and fell back to their entrenchments behind Brick Kiln Creek, near Big Bethel Church. Finding his men harassed daily by squads from these outposts, Butler sent 3,500 men in converging columns from Hampton and Newport News, under the immediate command of Brig. Gen. Ebenezer W. Pierce. The advance was led by the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry under Col. Abram Duryée (Duryée's Zouaves). But as Duryée's men were to open the attack, the 7th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment opened fire on the 3rd New York, clad in gray uniforms, behind them, thinking the Confederates were behind them as well as in front. Thinking they had been cut off, Duryée's men withdrew and the element of surprise was lost. The 3rd New York suffered 21 wounded (two mortally) in the incident.

The Confederates abandoned Little Bethel and fell back to their entrenchments behind Brick Kiln Creek near Big Bethel Church. The Federal forces pursued and attacked in piecemeal fashion along the right side of the road (an advance on the left side faltered in confusion). Of the various assaults made on the Confederate line, only the 1st Vermont Infantry made it across the creek. Maj. Theodore Winthrop (of the 7th New York but serving on the staff of Gen. Pierce) led a detachment of troops from the 5th New York, 1st Vermont, and 4th Massachusetts in an attempt to turn the Confederate left flank. Crossing downstream, his attack was also repulsed. Winthrop, a brilliant young author, was killed in the attack. The other notable Union death was Lt. John Trout Greble, commanding a three-gun battery of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. Greble was the first graduate of West Point and first regular army officer killed in the war. The disorganized Union forces retired, returning to Hampton and Newport News.

Live Long and Prosper....

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