by Andy Mateja

On June 10th 1861 the first large battle of the Civil War was fought at Big Bethel. It is located just a few miles from Hampton VA on the road to Yorktown near where the Monitor & Merrimac would duel in March 1862.The newly formed Confederacy captured the Gosport Naval Yards in April 1861 along with 1000 cannons and burning federal ships that included the Merrimac which the Southerners saved and converted to their very first ironclad called the “Virginia”.
The foundation of the Federal position on the Virginia peninsula was Fortress Monroe .Southerners cautiously watched federal expansion from Ft Monroe which was too strong to attack directly. This federal bastion was originally built in part by a young Lt with the name of Robt. E. Lee. The Fort was commanded by Ben Butler – a Political General who’s first act in Virginia was to capture Newport News
The Confederate commander, John B Magruder, moved on Big Bethel on June 6 1861 with future Lt General D.H. Hill and his North Carolina troops. They dug in and built earthworks over the next two days and moved to attack on June 10th However Butler and his Union troop attacked first with a night assault.
To distinguish friend from foe in the dark, the union troops used white cloths tied around their arms to distinguish themselves from enemy. The Confederates used white cloth wrapped around their caps
Butler ordered his troops to fire once and advance with the bayonet. The goal was to capture the opposing force and fall back. They were not to remain.
As to be expected, confused fighting occurred during the Union night attack. When thee Federals pulled back, they assumed their pursuers were Confederates. Unfortunately for them they weren’t as some were actually other Union troops dispatched from Newport News to assist Butler. In the confused melee, twenty-one friendly casualties resulted.
Butler’s forces assumed 3000-5000 Confederates opposed them with 30 pc artillery. When the artillery began the main battle at dawn, The Federals tried a flank attack but were blocked by Southern reinforcements. Sing a bit of deception, Butler’s men tried to fool the Confederates by copying their identification symbol – white cloth around their caps. However, the Union commander on the field was killed and attack stalled.
Further confusion in the Union lines caused portion of their battle line to retreat when the bayonets of a detached company were mistaken for an advance by the enemy. Seeing part of the line withdraw, eventually the rest of the Union line pulled back as well.
When the battle ended and the tally was made, Confederate losses were 1 killed and 10 wounded. Northern losses were 18 dead and 53 wounded. This was a clear cut Confederate victory – the first of many. Compared to later battles like Antietam and Shiloh, this first battle was hardly more than a minor skirmish with approximately 4000 Union and 1600 Confederate troops participating in the battle.
After their victory, The Confederates pulled back to Yorktown where they remained until Maj. Gen Geo B. McClellan began his advance up the peninsula in April – May 1862.
No one truly had any idea want to expect over the next four years. But they would NEVER forget the unspeakable carnage for generations to come……….