– Civil War Series –
Following the capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Civil War’s first land battle took place on June 10, 1861 at Big Bethel on the Virginia Peninsula. Despite Virginia’s secession in May, crusty Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler retained a garrison at Fort Monroe at the tip of the peninsula and made an initial foray in June to seize greater control of the landmass. Catching wind of Confederate camps at Little and Big Bethel, Butler commanded Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Pierce to move 3,500 Union forces to disrupt them.
But savvy Confederate Col. John Magruder was ready, with 1,200 forces awaiting at Big Bethel. Assisted by an incident of Union friendly fire that gave away Federal positions, Magruder’s Southerners repelled the attack in a confusing and jumbled melee that eventually sent the overzealous Yankees fleeing in disarray. The Union forces suffered 76 casualties to the Confederacy’s 11.
Today, few reminders of the oft-forgotten battle remain. Just north of the Big Bethel Reservoir in Hampton, Virginia—just across the street from Bethel Manor Elementary School—lies a single monument, a tribute to the North Carolina Volunteers who repulsed the bungled Federal assault. Do not go out of your way to visit, unless you are local or don’t mind a minor detour as part of a tour tracing the far more consequential Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
“Big Bethel,” CWSAC Battle Summaries, The American Battlefield Protection Program.
David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (Simon & Schuster: 2001), pages 75-76.
Susan Schulten, “Picturing Big Bethel,” New York Times, Disunion Series, 10 June 2011.