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. The Federals, under immediate command of Brig. Gen. Ebenezer W. Peirce, pursued, attacked frontally along the road, and were repulsed. Crossing downstream, the 5th New York Zouaves attempted to turn the Confederate left flank, but were repulsed. The Union forces were disorganized and retired, returning to Hampton and Newport News.
Big Bethel was the first Civil War land battle in present-day Virginia, and arguably the first land battle of the entire war. The other contender for first battle, the Battle of Philippi, on June 3, 1861, in present-day West Virginia (then part of Virginia), is considered by some as a skirmish rather than a full battle.
Butler was in command at Fort Monroe near Hampton in support of the Union blockade of Chesapeake Bay. Control of this fort at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula also allowed the Union to occupy the adjacent towns of Hampton and Newport News. In order to block Union forces from advancing further up the Peninsula, Confederate forces under Col. John B. Magruder had built a defensive line with outposts at Little Bethel Church, about 8 miles (13 km) from Hampton, and at Big Bethel Church, a short distance further north, along Marsh Creek (now named Brick Kiln Creek), a tributary of Back Creek. Magruder's force of 1,200 men included Col. Daniel Harvey Hill's 1st North Carolina Infantry, Lt. Col. William D. Stuart's 3rd Virginia Infantry, a cavalry battalion under Maj. E. B. Montague, and the Richmond Howitzer battalion under Maj. George W. Randolph (future Confederate Secretary of War).
Finding his men harassed daily by squads from these outposts, Butler sent against them 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 Zouves). But as Duryée's men were to open the attack, the 7th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment under Col. John E. Bendix 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 under Lt. Col. Peter T. Washburn 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 disorganized Union forces retired, returning to Hampton and Newport News.
Total Federal casualties were 79. The 5th New York itself suffered 31 casualties, including seven killed or mortally wounded.
The Confederates suffered only one killed and seven wounded. Maj. Randolph's artillery and Hill's 1st North Carolina troops were commended by Magruder for their actions. Within hours of the battle, Magruder withdrew his forces to Yorktown, where he established a line protected by the Warwick River.
Most of the Big Bethel battlefield, and the whole Little Bethel site, have not been preserved. Today the sites are generally covered with residential and commercial development. Brick Kiln Creek has also been dammed, creating the Big Bethel Reservoir on the battlefield site. The fragments of the site that remain are not readily identifiable.
- Eicher, p. 75: "Although this minor skirmish was glorified in the press ... it had little significance."
- Official Records, Butler's report, June 10, 1861.
- Kennedy, p. 6.
- Battle of Big Bethel, Civil War Encyclopedia, Georgia's Blue and Gray Trail website. Retrieved on 2008-09-12.
- Baptism of Fire: Big Bethel to the Peninsula. Retrieved on 2008-09-12.
- OR, Magruder's report, June 10, 1861.
- Salmon, p. 72.
- National Park Service battle description
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Buel, Clarence C. (eds.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Century Co., 1884-1888.
- Kennedy, Frances H., ed. (1998). The Civil War Battlefield Guide, Second Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.. ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
- Salmon, John S., The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, Stackpole Books, 2001, ISBN 0-8117-2868-4.
- U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901. Series I, Volume 2 [S# 2], Chapter IX.
- Gone and forgotten: the battle of Big Bethel
- Baptism of Fire: Big Bethel to the Peninsula
- Battle of Big Bethel, Georgia's Blue and Gray Trail website
- Official reports of the battle
de:Gefecht bei Big Bethel fr:Bataille de Big Bethel hu:Big Bethel-i csata nl:Slag bij Big Bethel ja:ビッグベセルの戦い ru:Сражение при Биг-Бетель zh:大伯特利之役