The Battle of Big Bethel
June 10, 1861. At a small river crossing near a church called Big Bethel, ten miles from Fort Monroe on the Virginia peninsula, organized units of Union and Confederate troops faced each other in battle for the first time on June 10, 1861. The result was a small but embarrassing defeat for the North and a propaganda coup for the South. Strategically insignificant, the skirmish at Big Bethel raised questions about Union military leadership and challenged Northern expectations of a rapid resolution to the war.
No one understood, in early June, how the conflict would play out. Northern soldiers wondered whether their Southern counterparts would stand up and fight for a traitorous cause, while the Southerners doubted the resolve of Union troops to fight so far from home for such an imperious master as the federal government. Neither side could field very many experienced soldiers — in fact, none but a handful who had served in the Mexican War had seen battle, and most of the young volunteer soldiers had had only a few weeks of military drill. Among the Northern troops, though, a general feeling prevailed that patriotism would overcome any deficiencies in training.
Big Bethel proved otherwise. On the night of June 9, General Benjamin Butler dispatched four regiments of troops, on separate roads, from encampments near Fort Monroe, hoping to surprise and overrun the small rebel outpost at Big Bethel. In the dark, however, two of the columns mistook each other for the enemy and began firing. Dozens were killed or wounded before the mistake was discovered. The soldiers continued their march, but the element of surprise was lost.
Discipline was also lacking. An officer quoted by historian Bruce Catton reported that some of the disorganized troops who reached the river crossing looked “more like men enjoying a huge picnic than soldiers awaiting battle.” (1)
In the uncoordinated assault that followed, only a battalion of the First Vermont Infantry and some Massachusetts troops, commanded by Vermont’s Colonel (and future governor) Peter T. Washburn, managed to cross the river and threaten the Confederate position, but soon the whole Union force was called into full retreat. (2)
Seventy-six Union soldiers were killed or wounded, compared to eight Confederates. “Our side labored under great disadvantage not knowing the Condition of the Enemy,” Sergeant Valentine Barney of the First Vermont complained, “and perhaps by the poorly laid plans of the officers.” Second Lieutenant (also a future Vermont governor) Roswell Farnham was more blunt, blaming “the blunders of political generals” for the failure. (3)
The North was alarmed, the South elated, but it would take bigger battles, greater blunders, and larger trials to bring into full awareness the scale of suffering and sacrifice that lay ahead.
1. Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961), p. 437.
2. George G. Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, vol. 1 (Burlington, Vt.: The Free Press Association, 1886), pp. 51-53.
3. Valentine Barney to Maria, June 11, 1861, Valentine Barney Papers, Vermont Historical Society; Roswell Farnham to Charles Harding, June 15, 1861, Roswell Farnham Papers, University of Vermont Special Collections.
– Submitted by Jeffrey Marshall, Director of Research Collections, University of Vermont Libraries
OTHER INTERESTING LINKS
Battle of Big Bethal [sic], Va June 10th, 1861 with sketch of battle map, Roswell Farnham
Civil War documents at the Vermont Historical Society