Friday, June 10, 2011

Battle of Big Bethel

When Virginia seceded, there was one fort on there soil that remained in the hands of the American government. Fort Monroe, on Old Point Comfort, near Hampton Roads and New Port News, did not have to fear Confederate attack because it could only be attacked on a narrow causeway, and it was supported by the Union navy. This foothold would be an important point in the attacks on Virginia. The commander of the fort was Major General Benjamin F. Butler. The Confederate commander of the peninsula was Col. John Magruder. Magruder placed his men at Little Bethel Church and Big Bethel Church. Butler decided they needed to be driven back because they harassed his outposts at the fort.

On the night of June 9th, 2,500 Union troops moved to launch a surprise attack on the Confederate forces. Before they reached the Confederate lines, the 7th and 3rd New York began to attack fire at other. By the time it was over, the Confederates were alerted to their presence, and a few dozen men were injured. The Union commander decided not to call off the attack.

Union Troops Attempt to Advance Against Confederate Artillery
But to reach the Confederate line, the Unions would have to cross a bridge and capture entrenchments. On the right they tried to form their lines and charge, but they were quickly broken by the artillery fire from the Confederate lines. On the left, 1,500 troops successfully crossed the creek by a ford to attempted to flank the Confederate line. But the Confederates were ready. As the 1st New York charged forward, believing there was nothing to oppose them, a North Carolina regiment rose from hidden fortifications, and poured in a heavy fire. The commander of the Union regiment jumped to the top of the fence, trying to lead his men forward, but he was shot by the Southerners. After remaining in that position for twenty minutes, the New York troops fell back, seeing they could not capture the position.

The Union attacks having failed, they fell back to Fort Monroe. The 2,500 Union troops suffered 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing. The 1,200 Confederates suffered only 1 killed and 7 missing. Private Henry Wyatt of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers was the first Confederate killed in combat in the Civil War. From this came the start of North Carolina's boast that they were, "First at Bethel, Farthest at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, and Last at Appomattox."

This battle demonstrated the fact that while surprise attacks could be very effective, if surprise was lost they were no longer useful. It also showed that with fewer soldiers, if they were behind entrenchments, could easily defeat larger forces.


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