Following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 men to aid in putting down the rebellion.
Unwilling to provide soldiers, Virginia instead elected to leave the Union and join the Confederacy.
As Virginia mobilized its state forces, Colonel Justin Dimick prepared to defend Fort Monroe at the tip of peninsula between the York and James Rivers.
Situated on Old Point Comfort, the fort commanded Hampton Roads and part of the Chesapeake Bay.
Easily resupplied by water, its land approaches consisted of a narrow causeway and isthmus which were covered by the fort’s guns.
After refusing an early surrender request from the Virginia militia, Dimick’s situation became stronger after April 20 when two Massachusetts militia regiments arrived as reinforcements. These forces continued to be augmented over the next month and on May 23
Major General Benjamin F. Butler assumed command.
As the garrison swelled, the fort’s grounds were no longer sufficient to encamp the Union forces. While Dimick had established Camp Hamilton outside the fort’s walls, Butler sent a force eight miles northwest to Newport News on May 27.
Taking the town, the Union troops constructed fortifications which were dubbed Camp Butler. Guns were soon emplaced which covered the James River and the mouth of the Nansemond River. Over the following days, both Camps Hamilton and Butler continued to be enlarged.
In Richmond, Major General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Virginia forces, increasingly became concerned regarding Butler’s activity. In an effort to contain and push back Union forces, he directed Colonel John B. Magruder take troops down the Peninsula.
Establishing his headquarters at Yorktown on May 24, he commanded around 1,500 men including some troops from North Carolina.
Battle of Big Bethel Church – Magruder Moves South:
On June 6, Magruder sent a force under Colonel D.H. Hill south to Big Bethel Church which was approximately eight miles from the Union camps. Assuming a position on the heights north of the west branch of the Back River, he commenced building a series of fortifications across the road between Yorktown and Hampton including a bridge over the river.
To support this position, Hill built a redoubt across the river on his right as well as works covering a ford to his left. As construction moved along at Big Bethel, he pushed a small force of around 50 men south to Little Bethel Church where an outpost was established. Having assumed these positions, Magruder began harassing Union patrols.
Battle of Big Bethel Church – Butler Responds:
Aware that Magruder had a substantial force at Big Bethel, Butler wrongly assumed that the garrison at Little Bethel was of a similar size.
Desiring to push the Confederates back, he directed Major Theodore Winthrop of his staff to devise an attack plan. Calling for converging columns from Camps Butler and Hamilton, Winthrop intended to mount a night assault on Little Bethel before pushing on to Big Bethel. On the night of June 9-10, Butler put 3,500 men in motion under the overall command of Brigadier General Ebenezer W. Peirce of the Massachusetts militia.
The plan called for Colonel Abram Duryee’s 5th New York Volunteer Infantry to leave Camp Hamilton and sever the road between Big and Little Bethel before attacking the latter.
They were to be followed by Colonel Frederick Townsend’s 3rd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment which would provide support.
As troops were departing Camp Hamilton, detachments of the 1st Vermont and 4th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, under Lieutenant Colonel Peter T. Washburn, and Colonel John A. Bendix’s 7th New York Volunteer were to advance from Camp Butler.
These were to meet Townsend’s regiment and form a reserve.
Concerned about the green nature of his men and confusion at night, Butler directed that Union troops wear a white band on their left arm and use the password “Boston.” Unfortunately, Butler’s messenger to Camp Butler failed to pass on this information.
Around 4:00 AM, Duryee’s men were in position and Captain Judson Kilpatrick captured the Confederate pickets.
Before the 5th New York could attack they heard gunfire in their rear. This proved to be Bendix’s men accidently firing on Townsend’s regiment as they approached.
As the Union had yet to standardize its uniforms, the situation was increasingly confused as the 3rd New York wore gray.
Battle of Big Bethel Church – Pushing On:
Restoring order, Duryee and Washburn recommended that the operation be canceled. Unwilling to do so, Peirce elected to continue the advance. The friendly fire incident alerted Magruder’s men to the Union attack and the men at Little Bethel withdrew.
Pushing on with Duryee’s regiment in the lead, Peirce occupied and burned Little Bethel Church before marching north towards Big Bethel.
As the Union troops approached, Magruder had just settled his men into their lines having aborted a movement against Hampton. Having lost the element of surprise, Kilpatrick further alerted the enemy to the Union approach when he shot at the Confederate pickets. Partially screened by trees and buildings, Peirce’s men began to arrive on the field. Duryee’s regiment was the first to attack and was turned back by heavy enemy fire.
Battle of Big Bethel Church – Union Failure:
Deploying his troops astride the Hampton road, Peirce also brought up three guns overseen by Lieutenant John T. Greble. Around noon, the 3rd New York advanced and attacked the forward Confederate position.
This proved unsuccessful and Townsend’s men sought cover before withdrawing. In the earthworks, Colonel W.D. Stuart feared that he was being outflanked and withdrew to the main Confederate line.
This allowed the 5th New York, which had been supporting Townsend’s regiment to capture the redoubt.
Unwilling to cede this position, Magruder directed reinforcements forward. Left unsupported, the 5th New York was forced to retreat. With this setback, Peirce directed attempts to turn the Confederate flanks.
These too proved unsuccessful and Winthrop was killed.
With the battle becoming a stalemate, Union troops and artillery continued firing on Magruder’s men from building on the south side of the creek. When a sortie to burn these structures was forced back, he directed his artillery to destroy them. Successful, the effort exposed Greble’s guns which continued firing.
As the Confederate artillery concentrated on this position, Greble was struck down. Seeing that no advantage could be gained, Peirce ordered his men to begin leaving the field.
Battle of Big Bethel Church – Aftermath:
Though pursued by a small force of Confederate cavalry, the Union troops reached their camps by 5:00 PM. In the fighting at Big Bethel, Peirce sustained 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing while Magruder’s command incurred 1 killed and 7 wounded.
One of the first Civil War battles to be fought in Virginia, Big Bethel led Union troops to halt their advance up the Peninsula.
Though victorious, Magruder also withdrew to a new, stronger line near Yorktown. Following the Union defeat at First Bull Run the following month, Butler’s forces were reduced which further hampered operations.
This would change the following spring when Major General George B. McClellan arrived with the Army of the Potomac at the start of the Peninsula Campaign.
As Union troops moved north, Magruder slowed their advance using a variety of tricks during the Siege of Yorktown.