Battle of Big Bethel, 10 June 1861

Minor Confederate victory early in the American Civil War. Union forces had retained control of Fort Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula (between the York and James Rivers). From Fort Monroe an expedition was planned to capture Little Bethal and Big Bethal, with the intention of expanding the area under Union control. Command of the expedition was give to General Ebenezer W. Peirce. He was given five regiments, detachments from two more and two guns from the regular Artillery, giving him somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 men. Facing him was Colonel (later General) John Magruder, who was to cause a much larger Union army great problems in the same area in the following year (Peninsula Campaign). He probably only had between 300 and 400 men, although did have more artillery.

The Union expedition went badly wrong from the start. One regiment was not given the watchword (‘Boston’), and inadvertently opened fire on a fellow Union regiment. The two most advanced Union regiments heard the firing, and believing that the Confederates had somehow got behind them, turned round.

When the disorganised Union force finally found the Confederates at Big Bethal, Magruder had had time to entrench in a strong position. The by now badly scattered Union forces made a series of futile attacks on the Confederate position during the morning of 10 June, before finally abandoning the expedition at about noon. Union losses were 76 (18 killed, 53 wounded and 5 missing), while Confederate losses were only 8 (1 killed and 7 wounded)! Big Bethel was fairly typical of many early battles – neither side had any significant experience of warfare, and many of the men were new to their regiments (which were themselves new). Other than giving Magruder some valuable experience, the battle had no impact on the position of the two sides on the Peninsula.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 October 2006), Battle of Big Bethel, 10 June 1861 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_big_bethal.html

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