|This depiction of the Battle of Big Bethel appeared in Frank Leslie's |
Illustrated Newspaper, June 22, 1861. Courtesy of Savas Beatie.
And in the blink of an eye you’ve missed something that’s fascinating in its awfulness and bone-chilling in its portent.Never mind that historians have all but ignored the Battle of Big Bethel. Considering the staggering losses that would occur at Manassas and elsewhere, it was little more than a skirmish. After all, only 19 men were killed and over a very short period. But still. . . .
This is where, on June 10, 1861, some of the first blood was spilled by northern and southern armies that had squared off to fight each other. And it was perhaps the first time that the two sides realized how brutal war can really be – and how seemingly endless it would become.As J. Michael Cobb, Edward B. Hicks and Wythe Holt tell us in their new book, Battle of Big Bethel, Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia, the soldiers, many of them raw recruits, “soon realized the terrible force with which a lead ball can strike, flying from a rifled musket at 950 feet per second. One survivor said it felt like ‘being hit by a club, followed by scalding water.’”
Mothers’ sons would fall as lead balls pierced their hearts or rifled artillery shells tore their bodies apart. “The scene was one of perfect rout, horrible beyond description,” the authors quote one North Carolina officer, “men with limbs shot off, brains oozing out and all sorts of horror.”So much for a quick and almost bloodless war. So much for glory and gallantry. Big Bethel showed it was going to be savage. A preview of what was to come? Oh, yes it was.
The Civil War had barely begun. Virginia had voted to secede from the Union just weeks before. And yet it was clear that the Peninsula would be crucial to both sides. Thousands of Union troops were pouring into Fort Monroe, a serious threat to the new Confederate capital in Richmond.With Hampton all but indefensible, Southern forces under Col. John B. Magruder chose to take their stand, at least temporarily, near Big Bethel Church, with an advance outpost at Little Bethel Church. And Northern forces under Gen. Benjamin Butler, expecting a cakewalk, went on the offensive. Soldiers from New York, Massachusetts and Vermont stumbled over unfamiliar swampy fields. They got lost, misunderstood a code word and at one point opened fire at each other.
I met Cobb and Holt at Bethel Park, which now sits next to the south end of the reservoir. We stood near a small rise, where trees now grow, that could have been a breastwork from which the Rebels’ first shots were fired as a Union column approached. The defenders also possessed one of the new 10-pound rifled Parrott guns that had devastating accuracy.When the first shots were fired, the ground seemed to erupt as it would before a plow and one observer saw the Northerners “falling away like the mist before the sun.” As the defenders received a hailstorm of minié balls, one lucky survivor yelled as he dove behind a tree, “Damn ‘em! They’re firing bullets!”
One of the worst enemies was fear. As the authors observed, “Men confronting sudden violent death, if they speak the truth, will tell you that “seeing the elephant,’ that is, experiencing battle for the first time, is terrifying and makes even invincible young men instantly aware of fragile mortality.”Although the Northerners responded with a perfect firestorm of musket and canon fire, the Southerners were too well dug in and this first direct confrontation on present-day Virginia soil quickly became a rout. The Confederates lost one soldier killed in battle – the first in Virginia – the Union suffered 18 dead and dozens more wounded. It was shocking to the North and exhilarating to the South, inspiring both sides to gird for a long war.
“Bethel proved it wasn’t going to be quick,” Cobb said as we stood near the outpost. “Both sides were going to fight, and both sides were going to fight to the finish.”Or as the authors conclude, “this civil war between brothers and neighbors would be total – unforgiving, brutal, and ruthless.”
All three authors will take part in Norfolk Historical Society's "Second Wednesday" program at 7 p.m. at the MacArthur Memorial Museum Theater