With Virginia’s entry into the Confederacy and Richmond serving as that nation’s new capital, large numbers of Federal troops began to concentrate near the state’s northern border, as well as, near Fort Monroe in southeast portion of the state. This concentration of forces led to the first true land battle of the Civil War.
In May 1861, Brigadier General Benjamin Butler assumed command of Fort Monroe, located on the southern tip of the peninsula between the James and York rivers. Butler didn’t like the presence of Colonel John B. Magruder’s small force of Confederates blocking any Union advance toward Richmond.
On June 7, 1861, Magruder ordered Colonel D. H. Hill to advance 1,400 Virginia and North Carolina troops to occupy a position near a village called Big Bethel, located just eight miles from Fort Monroe.
While Hill’s forces worked to build earthworks near Big Bethel Church, Butler devised plans to sweep the Confederates away from Fort Monroe. Butler ordered Brigadier General Ebenezer Pierce and 4,400 soldiers, hailing from New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, to march on the Confederate position at Big Bethel.
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Butler’s plan called for the Federals to launch a surprise attack on June 10, 1861. The surprise attack faltered early as the two advancing columns met before dawn near Little Bethel Church.
With the 5th New York Infantry leading the advance, the 7th New York mistakenly fired on the 3rd New York Infantry, which were clad in gray uniforms. The friendly fire inflicted 21 casualties with two being mortal.
The predawn fiasco served to warn Hill’s Confederates of the approaching Union force. Hill’s forces abandoned their position near Little Bethel and fell back to entrenchments near Big Bethel Church.
The Confederates opened fire with Major George Randolph’s battery shelling the Federals. For more than two hours both sides launched uncoordinated attacks. Only the 1st Vermont made it across Brick Kiln Creek while a later attempt to turn the Confederate left flank was repulsed.
Pierce withdrew to Fort Monroe, giving the smaller Confederate force a victory. The Federals suffered casualties of 18 killed, 53 wounded and five missing compared to the Confederate’s one killed and seven wounded. One of those to fall at Big Bethel was Lieutenant John Trout Greble, commanding the 2nd U. S. Artillery. Greble was the first West Point graduate and regular army officer killed in the Civil War.
The battle of Big Bethel was the first land battle of the Civil War and occurred eight weeks after Fort Sumter had been fired upon. After the Union defeat, there was some clamor to remove Butler from command. Butler was not removed from command but was eventually transferred to the Gulf States where he would play a leading role in the Union capture and occupation of New Orleans and Ship Island.
Given the early stage of the Civil War, the battle of Big Bethel was hailed as a significant Confederate victory. Neither side could fathom just how long the war would actually last and the carnage it would produce.
Little, if any, portions of the Big Bethel battlefield were preserved. Most of the land of the battlefield is residential homes and businesses. The location of Greble’s death is a convenience store. A good portion of the battlefield is under water after the Brick Kiln Creek was dammed, creating the Big Bethel Reservoir.