Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Pierce, USA
Cols. John B. Magruder and D.H. Hill , CSA
The Union deployed 3,500 men, the Confederates 1,200.
The Union lost 79 men, the Confederates 8.
On June 10, 1861, one of the first military engagements of the American Civil War took place at Big Bethel, Virginia. Confederate troops occupied the area around Big Bethel and Little Bethel Churches from which they would reconnoiter the Union positions around Hampton and Old Point The Union Army, tired of the incursions, determined to put a stop to them.
The plan of attack, drawn up by Major Winthrop of the Seventh New York Volunteer Regiment, was to march two columns north, one from Newport News and the other from Camp Hamilton, take both the Rebels and the churches, first Little Bethel and then Big Bethel, and burn the churches. The attack was scheduled to take place just before dawn or at dawn of the 10th, so the columns took off the night of the 9th. Winthrop knew the problems of night attacks. To avoid confusion in the dark, the men were to wear white rags around their left arms and yell 'Boston' if they encountered one another. But the precautions failed. In the dark, two regiments mistook each other for the enemy and opened fire, killing several of their own. Once the mistake was realized, the Federals, after a brief retreat, reorganized, and again marched on the Confederates.
The Confederates, under the command of Colonel John B. Magruder, abandoned Little Bethel and took up positions around Big Bethel on the north side of Back Creek (Marsh Creek) on the road from Hampton and Yorktown. To the right of the road stood a battery of two guns under the command of Major George W. Randolph, (a grandson of Thomas Jefferson). On their right flank, across the creek, was a single cannon, which had to stop firing when a priming wire broke (the cannon was eventually replaced). Another cannon, situated in the left of the road, protected the bridge across the creek. The infantry were protected by breastworks.
As the Federals approached their objective, they came under fire from the Confederate artillery, primarily Randolph's battery, who, during the course of the engagement, fired a total of 98 rounds. The attacking Federals took cover behind two farmhouses and in a tree line and returned fire, but the Federal artillery proved ineffective. Major Randolph reported the enemy 'fired upon us with shot, shell, spherical case, canister, and grape from 6 and 12-pounders, at a distance of about six hundred yards, but the only injury received from their artillery was the loss of one mule.'
The Federals attempted several direct assaults on the Confederate positions A Richmond newspaper printed an account by a Confederate soldier in the battle who captured the actions of one Federal officer during an assault: 'Their captain, a fine-looking man, reached the fence, and, leaping on a log, waved his sword, crying 'Come on, boys; one charge and the day is ours.' The words were his last, for a Carolina rifle ended his life the next moment, and his men fled in terror back.' The Captain was in fact Major Winthrop, the moving spirit of the whole enterprise. The fire from Randolph's battery was just too much for the attacking troops, as Captain Judson Kilpatrick of the Fifth New York Regiment wrote: 'The enemy's fire . . . began to tell upon us with great effect: my men were falling one after another, as was the case of the rest of the command.'
By 12:30, Federal forces began their retreat from battlefield, pursued by four cavalry companies who pursued the defeated Federals all the way to Black River, where the cavalry were stopped since the Federals had destroyed the bridge. Thus, the first serious engagement of the Civil War concluded.
The Confederates had a total of 1,100 men at the engagement with the Union attacking with 4,000. The only Confederate fatality was Private Henry L. Wyatt, who had jumped over a parapet and tried to burn one of the farmhouses being held by the Federals. Three other Confederates were wounded. On the other side, the Federal forces suffered 76 casualties--18 killed (including Major Winthrop), 53 wounded, and 5 missing.
Later that same day the Confederates abandoned their positions for the more secure defenses of Yorktown. The military effects of the battle were minor, but it was heavily reported in newspapers, contributing to the martial mood.