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Battle of Big Bethel
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Battle of Big Bethel
Other names: Great Bethel
Many Civil War buffs are surprised to find out that George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign was not the first attempt to take Virginia's lower peninsula between the York and James River. The first attempt began in late May, 1861, before the first land battle between Confederate and Yankee forces at Phillipi, when General Benjamin Butler [US] advanced to Fort Monroe with a force of just under 5,000 men.
Butler's fame shot up when his 6th Massachusetts Regiment seized Baltimore following the riots earlier in the month. Winfield Scott was unhappy with Butler and sent him to Fort Monroe guarding Chesapeake Bay. Among the men in Butler's contingent was W. F. "Baldy" Smith, an engineer with plenty of practical experience. Baldy Smith explored the southern end of the peninsula, noting Rebels at Little Bethel and continued north. Crossing Brick Kiln River (now dammed and known as Big Bethel Reservoir) on a narrow, one-lane bridge on the road to Yorktown, he almost ran into a Rebel camp near a church in an area known as Big Bethel.
Although Rebel command was divided between Colonels Daniel Harvey Hill (Yorktown) and John Bankhead Magruder (Big Bethel), it was Magruder who had established the positions on the peninsula. In addition to Hill and Magruder, the Confederates had John Bell Hood and future Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph in command of small forces.
When Smith returned and reported the Confederate positions, Butler ordered his fellow Massachusetts politician, Brigadier General Ebenezer Pierce to advance and drive the Rebels off. Apparently, Smith saw the church but did not have time to determine construction, because in his orders to Pierce, Butler ordered the church to be burned or blown up. The garrison at Little Bethel was warned of the Union approach by signal shots from the pickets, but the overpowering Union force flushed the Rebels there and drove them back the entrenchments established at Big Bethel. Perhaps over-confidently, Pierce advanced towards this line, coming under fire of some heavy Parrott artillery from Randolph's battery.
Pierce's command, 7 regiments in all, were in nearly complete disorganization when they hit Magruder's entrenched line. Of the various assaults made on the Confederate line only the First Vermont under Lt. Colonel Peter Washburn made it across Back Creek, which was protecting the Rebels. During the confusion of the attack the 7th New York began firing in the Union rear and the Yankees, including Washburn, withdrew to reorganize but were in such complete disarray that they never attacked again. Union loses totaled 76 men. The Confederates lost 8. Within hours after the battle, Magruder wisely withdrew his Confederate forces withdrew to Yorktown, where he established a line protected by the Warwick River.
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Battle of Big Bethel was last changed on - June 10, 2007
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