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Battle of Bethel. [from the Richmond, Va., dispatch, October 13, 1901.]

First engagement of the War between the States.

Barely mentioned in history.

Of sufficient importance to be recorded on its Pages—Men engaged in it on both sides who afterwards became famous.

Forty years ago the tenth of last June, the first battle of the Civil War was fought at Bethel Church, Va., between the Federal forces of General B. F. Butler (with General Pierce in immediate command) and the Confederates under General John B. Magruder. Though [198] comparatively a small affair, considered in the light of subsequent events, at the time of its occurence it was thought to be a great battle, and was flashed all over the country and was the subject of comment in every household. In the South it was an affair of considerable importance, inasmuch as it sent the first gleam of sunlight through the dark cloud of war that overspread this section, while at the North it served to convince the people that the South was in earnest in the secession movement.

What soldier does not remember his first battle? I will never forget this one. The early morning breakfast, the silence and seriousness that took possession of the troops as they marched to their positions, the hurried erection of breastworks, and the masking of them with sassafras bushes that were growing wild in the vicinity, the fire from which was so demoralizing to the enemy when the troops behind them rose as if out of the ground and delivered a deadly volley into their ranks. What a feeling takes possession of a man when he is crouched down behind earthworks awaiting the approach of the enemy, all unsuspecting, and he rises up from behind a masked battery and delivers his fire for the first time!

Early in June, 1861, the Confederates established an outpost at Bethel Church, on the Peninsula formed by the York and James rivers, about thirteen miles from Yorktown, eight from Hampton, and eight from the now-flourishing town of Newport News, but which was then an insignificant hamlet. Federal raiding parties had previously visited Bethel and inscribed on its church walls such ‘terrifying’ words as ‘Death to Traitors!’ ‘Down with the Rebels!’ etc.

General B. F. Butler, who was in command of the Department of Virginia, with headquarters at Fortress Monroe, determined to break up this observation post of the Confederates, and organized an expedition for that purpose, consisting of about 4,400 men from the First, Second, Third, Fifth and Seventh New York regiments, under the commands of Colonels Allen, Carr, Townsend, Duryea, and Bendix, respectively; the First Vermont, Fourth Massachusetts, and Second United States Artillery (regulars), under Lieutenant John T. Greble, with orders to ‘burn both Bethels; blow up if of brick’ (meaning Little Bethel and Big Bethel churches).

To meet this then formidable host the Confederates had assembled, under General John Bankhead Magruder, about 1,400 men, consisting of the First North Carolina regiment, Colonel D. H. Hill; three companies of the Third Virginia regiment (afterwards the Fifteenth), [199] under Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart; three other companies of Virginia troops, under Major Montague; one company of the Richmond Howitzer battalion, under Major George W. Randolph, and two companies of Virginia cavalry of about one hundred men. From the foregoing it will be seen that there were about 4,400 men on the Federal side against about 1,400 on the Confederate.

General Pierce, of the Federal army, in command at Hampton, was in charge of Butler's forces, and his command broke camp at 1 o'clock on the morning of the 10th of June, marching by two roads, with the intention of forming a junction near Little Bethel Church, about three miles below Big Bethel, and marching in solid column on the Confederates. When the two Federal commands met one mistook the other for the Confederates, immediately swung into line of battle, opened fire, and killed two and wounded nineteen of their friends before the mistake was discovered, including four officers.

While this little ‘family’ affair was going on the Confederates were massing their troops and preparing for the impending attack, for which they had but a little while to wait. Soon the drum-beats of the enemy were heard—so faint at first as to be hardly distinguishable, but clearer and clearer as the enemy drew nearer, until about 8 o'clock in the morning, when within about eight hundred yards in front of them, the Federal line of battle was formed, with Captain Judson Kilpatrick with two companies of Duryea's 5th New York Zouaves (the ‘Fire Zouaves’ they were called), in advance, the Confederate pickets were driven in, and the first battle of the civil war begun at a point about thirteen miles from Yorktown, where the revolutionary war practically ended just eighty years previously.

The first move of the Federals was by a portion of Townsend's Third New York regiment against the Confederate right, which was quickly driven back by the Confederate artillery and one company of the Third Virginia.

More troops were brought up, and a determined effort made to carry the Confederate left, but with only temporary success, when a gun of the Confederate battery was accidentally spiked by the breaking of a priming-wire, and the troops supporting it were ordered to fall back to a less exposed position, and the enemy advanced and occupied this work.

Shortly after this the abandoned redoubt was charged by a company of North Carolinians and retaken. In front of it was a house in which the Federal sharpshooters were concealed, and from which [200] they were annoying the Confederates. Five men of the First North Carolina volunteered to burn the house, and, provided with matches and a hatchet, leaped over the works and started for the building, when a volley was fired at them from the road, and young Henry L. Wyatt fell mortally wounded. The rest of the party returned to the Confederate lines, and the house was afterwards fired by a shell from a howitzer.

Winthrop's charge.

The fighting then shifted to the right, and was kept up two or three hours longer, the Federals several times attempting to carry the Confederate works by assault, but in every instance they were met with such a deadly fire they fell back. During one of these assaults a gallant young officer, Major Theodore Winthrop, of New Haven, Conn., who was General Butler's private secretary, and who volunteered as an aid on General Pierce's staff for this expedition, while attempting to rally a wavering column, drew his sword, waved it aloft, leaped on the trunk of a fallen tree, and shouted to his men: ‘One more charge, boys, and the day is ours!’ Alas, for poor Winthrop! It was his last charge. A North Carolinian sent a bullet crashing through his heart, and he fell dead at the head of the column, which retired in great confusion. This practically ended the battle, after four or five hours of fighting, and the Federals returned to Fortress Monroe.

A gathering up of the wounded and a summary of the casualties showed a loss of:


The small loss of the Confederates was due probably to the fact that they were fighting for the most part behind works.

During the battle a prisoner was taken by the Confederates, which was considered a great feat in those early days of the war, and so fearful was his captor that he would escape he tied him to a tree during the battle, in rear of Bethel Church, in line of fire. I'll never forget the look of fright upon his countenance while thus exposed, nor did he ever forget his experience, I am sure.

Here's to you, old friend, if this should meet your eye. If I were as near you to-day as I was on that memorable 10th of June I would shake you by the hand.


A coincidence.

The soldier killed on the Confederate side was young Henry L. Wyatt, and he was the first soldier killed in a pitched battle on the southern side. Thirty-five years after seeing young Wyatt lying mortally wounded on the battle-field, I was walking through the Soldiers' Section of Hollywood Cemetery, in the suburbs of Richmond, and came across a wooden headboard that had rotted down and fallen with the blank side up. I turned it over with my foot and discovered that it had been over this soldier's grave, as I read his name, date of death, and regiment to which he belonged.

Behind the chimney of a house on the field, where he had taken shelter, I came across one of Duryea's red-breeches Zouaves, cold in death, killed by an artillery shot that had passed through the house and chimney that shielded him, thus proving that there is no safe place on a battle-field.

Northern sentiment.

After the battle there was a great clamor for the removal of Butler, the New York Tribune declaring that the President would show his wisdom by making peace with the Southern Confederacy at once if he was not willing to send generals into Virginia who were ‘up to their work,’ while the Herald sustained Butler ‘as evidently the right man in the right place.’

The Charleston Courier about the same time stated that a letter had been received in that city saying that a great reaction had taken place among the capitalists of New York and Boston, and that petitions were being circulated to be laid before Congress asking the peaceful recognition of the Southern Confederacy and the establishment of amicable relations by treaties; the speedy closing of the war, or else New York and Boston would be ruined cities.

Became famous.

Among the participants in this battle who afterwards became famous were:

Captain Kilpatrick, on the Federal side, as a cavalry general.

Colonel Hill, on the Confederate side, as a lieutenant-general.

General Butler, on the Federal, as a major-general, who was ‘bottled up’ at Bermuda Hundred at the beginning of the siege of Petersburg.

Major George W. Randolph, who commanded the Confederate artillery, as Secretary of War of the Confederate States. [202]

And a host of lesser lights who became captains, majors, colonels, and even brigadier-generals.

The impression prevailed at the out-break of the Civil War (and prevails now to considerable extent) that volunteers were no match for ‘regulars’ in battle, but this fight dispelled that illusion, as on this occasion the firing of the regular United States Battery was wild in the extreme, while that of the Confederate artillery was accurate and deadly, as attested by official reports of Federal officers engaged in this affair, and these guns were manned by young men, many of whom had never fired a cannon even in target practices.

Lieutenant John T. Greble, who commanded the ‘regular’ artillery, lost his life just as the engagement closed.

Colonel Hill's official report.

Following is the official report of Colonel D. H. Hill. As compared with official reports of great battles later in the war, which were brief and destitute of all but the most important details, it is quite a curiosity. Nevertheless, it is interesting, and tells the reader all he wants to know of this first battle of the Civil War, about which very little is said in history:

First North Carolina infantry, Yorktown, June 12, 1861.
In obedience to orders from the colonel commanding, I marched on the 6th instant with my regiment and four pieces of Major Randolph's battery from Yorktown, on the Hampton road, to Bethel Church, nine miles from Hampton. We reached there after dark on a wet night, and slept without tents. Early on the morning of the 7th I made a reconnaissance of the ground, preparatory to fortifying.

I found a branch of Back river on our front, and encircling our right flank. On our left was a dense and almost impassable wood, except about one hundred and fifty yards of old field. The breadth of the road, a thick wood, and narrow, cultivated field covered our rear. The nature of the ground determined me to make an enclosed work, and I had the invaluable aid of Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, of my regiment, in its plan and construction. Our position had the inherent defect of being commanded by an immense field immediately in front of it, upon which the masses of the enemy might be readily deployed. Presuming that an attempt would be made to carry the bridge across the stream, a battery was made for its especial protection, and Major Randolph placed his guns so as to sweep all the approaches to it. [203]

The occupation of two commanding eminences beyond the creek and on our right would have greatly strengthened our position, but our force was too weak to admit of the occupation of more than one of them. A battery was laid out on it for one of Randolph's howitzers. We had only twenty-five spades, six axes, and three picks, but these were busily plied all day and night of the 7th and all day on the 8th. On the afternoon of the 8th I learned that a marauding party of the enemy was within a few miles of us. I called for a party of thirty-tour men to drive them back. Lieutenant Roberts, of Company F, of my regiment, promptly responded, and in five minutes his command was en route.

I detached Major Randolph with one howitzer to join them, and Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, First regiment North Carolina volunteers, requested, and was granted, permission to take command of the whole. After a march of five miles they came across the marauders busy over the spoils of a plundered house. A shell soon put the plunderers to flight, and they were chased over New Market bridge, where our little force was halted, in consequence of a considerable body situated on — the other side.

Lieutenant-Colonel Lee brought in one prisoner. How many of the enemy were killed and wounded is not known. None of our command was hurt. Soon after Lieutenant-Colonel Lee left a citizen came dashing in with the information that seventy-five marauders were on the Back River road.

I called on Captain McDowell's company (E), of the First regiment of North Carolina volunteers, and in three minutes it was in hot pursuit. Lieutenant West, of the Howitzer battalion, with one piece, was detached to join them, and Major Lane, of my regiment, volunteered, dispersed and chased the wretches over New Market bridge, this being the second race over the New Market course, in both of which the Yankees reached the goal first. Major Lane brought in one prisoner. Reliable citizens reported that two cartloads and one buggy-load of wounded were taken into Hampton.

We had not a single man wounded or killed. Colonel Magruder came up that evening and assumed command.

A fresh supply.

On Sunday, June 9th, a fresh supply of tools enabled us to put more men to work, and when not engaged in religious duties the men worked vigorously on the intrenchments. We were aroused at 3 o'clock on Monday morning for a general advance upon the [204] enemy, and marched three and a half miles, when we learned that the foe, in large force, was within a few hundred yards of us. We fell back hastily upon our entrenchments and waited the arrival of our invaders. Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart, of the Third Virginia regiment, having come with 180 men, were stationed on the hill on the extreme right, beyond the creek, and Company G, of my regiment, was also thrown over the stream to protect the howitzer under Captain Brown.

Captain Bridges, of Company A, First North Carolina regiment, took post in the dense woods beyond and to the left of the road. Major Montague, with three companies of his battalion, was ordered up from the rear and took post on our right, being at the church and extending along the entire front on that side.

This fine body of men and the gallant command of Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart worked with great rapidity, and in an hour had constructed temporary shelters against the enemy's fire.

Just at 9 o'clock A. M. the heavy columns of the enemy were seen approaching rapidly and in good order, but when Randolph opened upon them at 9:15 their organization was completely broken up. The enemy promptly replied with his artillery, firing briskly but wildly. He made an attempt at deployment on our right of the road under cover of some houses and paling. He was, however, very promptly driven back by our artillery, a Virginia company—the Life Guard—and Companies B and G of my regiment. The enemy attempted no deployment within musketry range during the day, except under cover of woods, fences or paling.

Under cover of trees, he moved a strong column to an old ford some three-quarters of a mile below, where I had placed a picket of some forty men, Colonel Magruder sent Captain Worth's company, of Montague's command, with one howitzer, under Sergeant Crane, to drive back this column, which was done by a single shot from the howitzer.

Before this a priming-wire had been broken in the vent of the howitzer commanded by Captain Brown, which rendered it useless.

A force estimated at 1,500 was now attempting to outflank us and get in the rear of Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart's small command. He was accordingly directed to fall back, and the whole of our advanced troops were withdrawn. At this critical moment I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Lee to call Captain Bridges out of the swamp, and ordered him to reoccupy the nearest advanced work, and I ordered [205] Captain Ross, Company C, First Regiment, North Carolina Volunteers, to the support of Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart.

These two captains, with their companies, crossed over to Randolph's Battery under a very heavy fire in a most gallant manner. As Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart had withdrawn, Captain Ross was detained at the church, near Randolph's Battery. Captain Bridges, however, crossed over and drove the Zouaves out of the advanced howitzer battery and reoccupied it.

It is impossible to overestimate this service. It decided the action in our favor.

In obedience to orders from Colonel Magruder, Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart marched back, and in spite of the presence of a foe ten times his superior in number, resumed in the most heroic manner possession of the entrenchments.

A fresh howitzer was carried across and placed in the battery, and Captain Avery, of Company G, was directed to defend it at all hazards. We were now as secure as at the beginning of the fight, and as yet had no man killed. The enemy, finding himself foiled on our right flank, next made his final demonstration on our left. A strong column, supposed to consist of volunteers from different regiments, and under command of Captain Winthrop, aid-de-camp to General Butler, crossed over the creek and appeared at the angle on our left. Those in advance had put on our distinctive badge of a white band around the cap, and they cried out repeatedly: ‘Don't fire.’ This ruse was practiced to enable the whole column to get over the creek and form in good order. They now began to cheer most lustily, thinking that our work was open at the gorge, and that they could get in by a sudden rush. Companies B and C, however, dispelled the illusion by a cool, deliberate, and well directed fire. Colonel Magruder sent over portions of Companies G, C and H, of my regiment, to our support; and now began as cool firing on our side as was ever witnessed.

The three field officers of the regiment were present, and but few shots were fired without their permission, the men repeatedly saying: ‘May I fire?’ ‘I think I can bring him.’ They were all in high glee, and seemed to enjoy it as much as boys do rabbit shooting. Captain Winthrop, while most gallantly urging on his men, was shot through the heart, when all rushed back with the utmost precipitation. [206]

The fight at the angle lasted but twenty minutes. It completely discouraged the enemy, and he made no further effort at assault. The house in front, which had served as a hiding place for the enemy, was now fired by a shell from a howitzer, and the outhouses and palings were soon in a blaze. As all shelter was now taken from him, the enemy called in his troops and started back for Hampton. As he had left sharpshooters behind him in the woods on our left, the Dragoons could not advance until Captain Hoke, of Company K, First North Carolina Volunteers, had thoroughly explored them.

As soon as he gave assurance of the road being clear, Captain Douthatt, with some one hundred dragoons, in compliance with Colonel Magruder's orders, pursued. The enemy, in his haste, threw away hundreds of canteens, haversacks, overcoats, etc.; even the dead were thrown out of the wagons. The pursuit soon became a chase, and for the third time the enemy won the race over the New Market course.

The bridge was torn up behind him, and our dragoons returned to camp. There was not quite eight hundred of my regiment engaged in the fight, and not one half of these drew trigger during the day.

All remained manfully at the post assigned them, and not a man in the regiment behaved badly. The companies not engaged were as much exposed, and rendered equal service with those participating in the fight. They deserve equally the thanks of the country. In fact, it is the most trying ordeal to which soldiers can be subjected, to receive a fire which their orders forbid them to return. Had a single company left its post our works would have been exposed, and the constancy and discipline of the unengaged companies cannot be too highly commended.

A detachment of fifteen cadets from the North Carolina Military Institute defended the howitzer under Lieutenant Hudnall, and acted with great coolness and determination.

The Confederates had in all 1,200 men in the action.

The enemy had the regiments of Colonel Duryea (Zouaves), Colonel Carr, Colonel Allen, Colonel Bendix, and Colonel Winthrop (Massachusetts), from Old Point Comfort, and five companies of Phelp's Regiment, from Newport News. We had never more than 300 actively engaged at any one time.

The Confederate loss was eleven wounded—of these one mortally. [207] The enemy must have lost some 300. I could not, without great disparagement of their courage, place their loss at a lower figure.

D. H. Hill, Colonel First Regiment North Carolina Volunteers.

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