Major General Benjamin F. Butler commanded a Federal force from Fort Monroe, in southeastern Virginia on the tip of the Peninsula between the York and James rivers. Butler had camps at Hampton and Newport News, and he intended to move up the Peninsula toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. Opposing him were Confederates led by Colonel John B. Magruder in camps at Big Bethel and Little Bethel, about 10 miles northwest of Newport News.
Magruder dispatched the 1st North Carolina under Colonel D.H. Hill to reconnoiter Federal movements near Big Bethel and to possibly lure the Federals into a fight they could not win. 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. These advanced positions disrupted Butler’s communications and foraging operations.
Butler, whose Federals had captured Newport News in late May, wanted to drive the Confederates out of the Big Bethel area so he could continue his advance up the Peninsula. Just like when he captured Baltimore in May, Butler planned to act without authorization from his superiors. He dispatched seven regiments under Brigadier General Ebenezer W. Peirce from Newport News and Fort Monroe on the night of the 9th.
Butler’s complex plan called for four columns to converge on Little Bethel, destroy the Confederate force there and then move on to Big Bethel. But the inexperienced troops lacked the discipline to conduct this maneuver in darkness. Butler directed the men to yell “Boston!” before attacking to identify themselves to their comrades, but not everybody got this order. Butler also had the men wear white handkerchiefs on their left arms for identification, but this did not stop troops of the 5th New York Zouaves from mistaking the gray-clad 3rd New York for Confederates and firing on them. Twenty-one men were killed or wounded by this friendly fire.
The gunfire alerted the Confederates at Little Bethel, and they withdrew to stronger defenses near Big Bethel Church, at Brick Kiln. Just before 1 a.m. on the 10th, Peirce’s 4,400 Federals advanced from the south toward Magruder’s 1,400 Confederates. Magruder may have been outnumbered, but he had his entire force posted behind strong defensive earthworks, and most of his cannon placed on the north bank of the Back River. Magruder’s right was covered by a howitzer battalion led by Major George Randolph, and his left was covered by sharpshooters concealed in the woods.
Peirce deployed his Federals on both sides of the Hampton Road and moved to attack. But the troops struggled to see the Confederates behind the fortifications, and the marshy terrain combined with their inexperience made their assault slow and uncertain. The Federals attacking the Confederate right were met by the howitzer fire and quickly scattered. The 5th New York Zouaves made a courageous charge in this sector but finally withdrew under heavy fire. The Confederates then turned their full attention to the Federal advance on their left flank.
Troops of the 1st New York, led by Butler’s aide-de-camp and young author Major Theodore Winthrop, moved to attack what they thought was the enemy rear. They did not see the men of D.H. Hill’s 1st North Carolina hidden within the fortifications until Hill ordered them to rise and fire. This deadly volley killed Winthrop and forced the New Yorkers to withdraw. The Federal assaults had been repelled because they were conducted piecemeal. No more than 300 Confederates were engaged at any one time. Peirce ordered a general withdrawal, ending the fight in Confederate victory.
The Federals sustained 76 casualties. Lieutenant J.T. Greble of the 2nd U.S. Artillery became the first Regular Army officer to be killed in action. 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.” Federals reacted to their loss by destroying farms, looting houses, and freeing slaves on the Lower Peninsula, particularly in Gloucester County. The freed slaves were re-enslaved as unpaid laborers for the Federal army.
The Confederates lost just one man killed and seven wounded. This was a minor engagement, but it was a welcomed victory for the Confederacy after the loss of Alexandria and the defeat at Philippi in western Virginia. Federal equipment that was left on the battlefield after the retreat was proudly displayed in the windows of Richmond’s shops and stores.
Magruder, Randolph, and Hill received promotions to brigadier general. Magruder became an instant celebrity in 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 theatrics.
Despite their victory, this engagement put Confederates 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 actions along the Lower Peninsula were stalemated for the time being.
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