Blundering Their Way to Big Bethel

Sunday, June 9, 1861

While Union General Patterson was in a holding pattern in southern Pennsylvania and Colonel Stone was gathering his wits and troops in Washington for the Rockville Expedition, General Butler, with men at Fortress Monroe and Newport News, planned a pre-dawn attack on a nearby Rebel fortification.

For a few days, detachments from the Confederate forces at Big Bethel, eight miles north of Newport News, had been harassing Butler’s soldiers. Rebel Col. John Magruder, commanding what would become the Army of the Peninsula, fearing that Butler might attempt an attack on Richmond, fortified the bridges at Little and Big Bethel, his main force occupying the latter.

Butler’s plan, finalized in the afternoon, was outlined in detail so nothing could go wrong. One regiment was to march from Newport News and a larger force under Col. Abram Duryée (with his 5th NY Zouaves) from Hampton. At 10pm, advance pickets were to be sent out and at midnight, the march was to begin in earnest.

The plan relied upon the element of surprise. And thus having caught the enemy off guard, the men were to “fire one volley, if desirable, not reload, and go ahead with the bayonet.”

Since it would be dark, Butler thought that his men should tie “a white rag (or dirty white rag) on the left arm” so that they did not accidentally shoot each other.

The Rebels at Little Bethel should be easy enough to bag, thought Butler, and if they are beaten back, his troops were to advance up the road to Big Bethel.

An interesting line appeared in these orders: “George Scott to have a shooting iron.” George Scott was a freed slave (“contraband”) they used, and paid, as a guide. He scouted the Southern position and very accurately described their exact location. This was the first instance of a black man officially and legally taking up arms against the South.1

By evening, the operation was put in the hands of General Ebenezer W. Pierce and the details were arranged. Col. Duryea’s Zouaves were to march from Hampton and be supported by the 3rd New York (clad in gray), under Col. Townsend. Col. Bendix with troops from New York, Vermont and Massachusetts would leave from Newport News. They were to converge in a two-pronged attack at Little Bethel. To avoid confusion, the watchword was “Boston!” and was to be shouted by the men upon first seeing each other. 2

Capt. Judson Kilpatrick of the 5th New York was sent with 50 men from Company H, as advance guards to hold New Market Bridge. They arrived at 1am, threw out scouts in all directions and waited for the main body to catch up. By 3am, Col. Duryea and his command arrived. Kilpatrick was ordered to advance to another bridge, closer to Little Bethel, thought to be held by the Rebels. The rest of Duryea’s 5th New York continued over the bridge on their way to Little Bethel.3

Meanwhile, Col. Bendix from Newport News had arrived at the meeting point between New Market Bridge and Little Bethel. Unknown to him, he had missed Duryea’s men and had arrived before Townsend’s. They arrayed themselves along the woods and placed a cannon on the road. Bendix spied some troops moving along the road and suspected that they were cavalry. As Bendix was seeing to the artillery, firing broke out, first from his men near the woods and then from the road.4

Having just crossed New Market Bridge, General Pierce, marching with the gray-clad 3rd New York under Col. Townsend, saw troops emerging from the woods on their flank. Pierce, figuring them to be friends, marched on. But suddenly a volley from the woods ripped into the men behind him. They returned the favor.

When the opposing artillery opened fire, Pierce, perhaps less convinced of their friendly nature, rode back to the men, ordered them to charge with bayonets while shouting “Boston!” just in case. It was, however, no use. Townsend’s men began to fall back. Pierce rallied them enough to order a withdraw across New Market Bridge.

Pierce sent back to Hampton for reinforcements while his men took up positions on the high ground, hoping to draw the supposed enemy from their position.

The supposed enemy advanced upon them as Pierce sent out skirmishers. When they met the enemy, they discovered that these were not the Rebels, but the men from Newport News under Bendix. This confusion resulted in 21 wounded (two mortally so).

Col. Duryea, a mile or so in advance of this friendly skirmish, heard the firing and, thinking the Rebels had cut them off from home, about-faced his men and quickly headed for the fighting. By the time they arrived, the firing was over and the fog lifted.

Gen. Pierce, along with the other officers, met to decide what to do next. The firing had surely alerted the Confederates of their advance, losing for them the element of surprise. However, decided Pierce, orders were orders and he would proceed to Little Bethel as the first flickers of dawn appeared in the east.5

__________________

United States Sanitary Commission is Formed

On May 18, several doctors from New York wrote to Secretary of War Cameron and announced their idea of an organization whose main mission was to prevent disease by maintaining a high level of cleanliness in field hospitals. They would also supply nurses and general medical aid to the soldiers. Initially, the War Department and even the President were suspicious of their motives. Some thought they were in it merely for personal gain, while Lincoln thought that it “added a fifth wheel to the coach.”

A delegation was sent to Washington to explain, in detail, that, unlike so many other special interest groups invading the Capital at this time, the Sanitary Commission was a completely altruistic special interest group.

Finally, Washington acquiesced when the Commission delegates agreed with the demand that their organization would help only the volunteer units, not the Regular Army. This suggestion clearly showed what the government thought of the volunteer soldiers. Neither the Sanitary Commission nor the Volunteers were looked upon as anything more than an unhappy necessity (and, in their eyes, the Sanitary Commission was hardly afforded even that status).

All members of the Sanitary Commission, from the humble nurses up to the medical doctors in charge, were to “serve without renumeration from the Government,” though Washington would provide them with an office.6



  1. Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences by Benjamin Butler. Usually I try to avoid his memoirs, but he printed his full marching orders here and it was quite useful as they’re only alluded to in the OR. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p83-84 – Gen. Pierce’s Report. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p89 – Capt. Kilpatrick’s Report. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p88 – Col. Bendix’s Report. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p83-84 – Gen. Pierce’s Report. []
  6. History of the United States Sanitary Commission by Charles J. Stille, Hurd & Houghton, 1868. The date of the official founding is quite clear. It’s even on their seal. Still, several “day-by-day” books have it as June 8, which is incorrect. []
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2 thoughts on “Blundering Their Way to Big Bethel

  1. Thank you for your article on the USSC. I very much appreciate the foot note correcting the official founding of the organization vs what has been seen in print in books and articles. I too have run into this.

    It is with great pride that I am part of the USSC – Boston Branch. Due to the great fire in Boston of 1872 the office and N.E. Ladies Aux offices and the depot were burned. It has been a challenge to recover items that were exclusive to the Boston location.

    1. Thanks so much for noticing it. Doing a day-by-day sort of blog, I run across a lot of “sometime in early July” kind of phrases, which help me very little. But in a case such as the founding of the USSC, where the date is actually on the seal, it’s pretty simple. 🙂

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