June 10, 1861 – The Confederacy won the war’s first land battle in Virginia, stopping a Federal drive up the Peninsula between the York and James rivers.
Colonel John B. Magruder, commanding Confederates on the Peninsula near Yorktown, dispatched the 1st North Carolina under Colonel D.H. Hill to reconnoiter Federal movements at nearby Big Bethel, or Bethel Church. The Confederates approached to within eight miles of the main Federal force at Hampton, where they began felling trees and building earthworks on both sides of the Back River.
Major General Benjamin F. Butler, whose Federals had captured Newport News in late May, sought to drive the Confederates out of the Big Bethel area so he could continue his advance up the Peninsula. Without authorization from his superiors, Butler dispatched seven regiments under General Ebenezer W. Price from Newport News and Fort Monroe on the night of June 9.
Butler’s complex plan called for four columns to converge on Big Bethel and Little Bethel, but the inexperienced troops lacked the discipline to conduct the maneuver in darkness. Moreover, they mistook the gray-clad 5th New York Zouaves for Confederates and fired on them, inflicting 21 casualties. Meanwhile, Magruder’s Confederates withdrew to stronger defenses near Big Bethel Church, at Brick Kiln.
Just before 1 a.m. on the 10th, Price’s 4,400 Federals advanced from the south toward Magruder’s 1,400 Confederates at Big Bethel, about 10 miles northwest of Newport News. Magruder posted his men behind earthworks, with most of their cannon placed on the north bank of the Back River.
The Federals advanced to attack, but the marshy terrain made their assault slow and uncertain. The 5th New York Zouaves crossed a creek downstream to turn the enemy’s left flank, but the Confederates killed their commander and repulsed their advance. The remaining Federals advanced piecemeal and were repelled, mainly by D.H. Hill’s 1st North Carolina. No more than 300 Confederates were engaged at any one time.
The attackers then became confused and fired into each other, and within an hour Major George W. Randolph’s Confederate artillery forced them to withdraw back to Hampton and Newport News. The Federals sustained 76 casualties, including young author and Butler aide Major Theodore Winthrop. A Federal colonel noted that “for at least one mile from the scene of the action the men and officers were scattered singly and in groups, without form or organization, looking far more like men enjoying a huge picnic than soldiers awaiting battle.”
Butler received most of the blame for the defeat. Federals reacted to their loss by destroying farms, looting houses, and freeing slaves on the Lower Peninsula, particularly in Gloucester County. Slaves were put to work as unpaid laborers for the Federal army.
The Confederates lost just one man killed and seven wounded, using their superior artillery to fight off a force twice their size. This was a minor engagement, but it was a welcomed achievement in the Confederacy after the loss of Alexandria and the defeat at Philippi. Battle trophies were displayed in Richmond shop windows.
Magruder, Randolph, and Hill received promotions to brigadier general. Magruder became an instant celebrity throughout the South, which he quickly exploited with his flamboyant, arrogant personality. He called his force the Army of the Peninsula, and comrades called him “Prince John” due to his affinity for fashion, ladies, and entertainment.
Despite their victory, this engagement put Confederate officials on notice that the Federals would eventually mount a major offensive on the Peninsula. As a result, Major General Robert E. Lee was assigned to help strengthen Magruder’s defenses at Yorktown, and a stalemate ensued along the Lower Peninsula.
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