Monday, June 10, 1861
The accidental but deadly engagement between two different regiments of Union troops, each mistaking the other for the Rebels, blundering into each other on the way to Big Bethel, was observed by Confederate Capt. W. H. Werth, commander of the Chatham Grays. He watched both regiments firing musket, shot and shell into each other for over ten minutes through a spyglass not over a mile away.
Werth and his men had been deployed near Little Bethel to catch the Union troops crossing the bridge, ambush them and, since the Rebel numbers were small, rejoin the main force a few miles up the road at Big Bethel. But as they crossed the bridge, he noticed that he was greatly outnumbered and fell back to a more secure position that still allowed him to keep an eye on the bridge, over which the two hapless Union regiments were fighting.
After the Union commanders sorted out their differences, Werth and his men marched back to Big Bethel, the Yankees close behind.1
The Confederate fortification at Big Bethel was commanded first by Colonel D.H. Hill and then by Col. John Magruder, who had arrived two days earlier. To overtake the position, the Union troops would have to cross the bridge over Big Bethel Creek and scale the entrenchments, which had been improved and made much more formidable by the time the Union troops were seen marching toward them.
The approach also had the Union troops running a gauntlet. On the Confederate right, a howitzer planted on high ground was protected by 150 men. On the left were posted advanced lines of sharpshooters deployed in the wood. They took shots at the advancing Northern troops and then fell back towards relative safety.
The Union men attempted to deploy on both sides of the road. On the Confederate right, the Union lines almost immediately broke under the fire from the howitzer. Under cover of the woods on the Confederate left, Union Zouaves were able to form line of battle while the Confederate cannons in the fort from across Big Bethel sent exploding shell into their ranks. Undaunted, they let out a cry and advanced towards the edge of the woods. When they reached the clearing, they found the Rebel fire too heavy and their advance came to a halt. The took cover in the woods, maintaining a steady fire upon the Rebels through the duration of the battle.2
Another column of 1,500 Northern troops quickly marched on a side road to a ford that crossed the creek and would land them on the Rebel left flank.
A small Rebel company of 40 men held the ford and quickly fell back, as did all of the advanced troops. Behind their entrenchments, the Confederates were secure and could easily defend their position. With the Union attack on their right foiled, all attention could be turned to the 1,500 Union troops streaming across Big Bethel Creek on their left flank.
These men, the 1st New York, fresh from Hampton, were, in part, led by Union Major Winthrop, General Butler’s aide-de-camp. Thinking they had gained the rear of the Rebel entrenchments and could easily win the battle, they rushed forward to a fence near the Confederate position. Hidden behind the fortifications was a regiment of North Carolina troops who, upon an order to fire, sent a murderous volley into the Union line.
Winthrop climbed to the top of the fence, brandished his sword and urged his men forward. Creating such a target, the Union Major was killed, struck by a ball through his chest. The fighting was hot for twenty minutes, but realizing the position could not be carried, the New York troops fell back across the creek.3
Union General Pierce, knowing he was beat, ordered the killed and wounded to be collected as he sent his regiments back down the road to Hampton. Not all of the Union dead were gathered, however, some having to be left for the Confederates to bury. The Zouaves led the retreat and a rear guard was posted to keep the Rebels from sending cavalry to nip at the heels of the defeated Yankees.
They returned in good order to Hampton. The 2,500 engaged Union troops suffered 18 killed, 53 wounded, 5 missing. The Confederates had engaged 1,200 with only 1 killed and 7 wounded.4
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p102 – Capt. Werth’s First Report. He mentions the fight between the Union regiments as lasting “five minutes,” but it was probably closer to ten. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p89 – Capt. Kilpatrick’s Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p94-95 – Col. D.H. Hill’s Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p83-84 – Gen. Pierce’s Report. The Union casualty totals are from Pierce’s account while the Confederate totals were from D.H. Hill’s. [↩]