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.
Background of Battle of Big Bethel
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.
Aftermath of Battle of Big Bethel
Total Federal casualties in the Battle of Big Bethel 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.