June 10, 1861
Union Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler arrived at his new command, Fort Monroe on the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers, on May 22, 1861. The 2,500 Confederate soldiers on the peninsula confronting the Union force were commanded by flamboyant Col. John B. Magruder, who on June 7 sent Col. Daniel H. Hill and 1,400 North Carolina and Virginia troops to occupy an advanced position near Big Bethel, a small village eight miles from Fort Monroe that got its name from nearby Bethel Church. Hill’s men worked for two days building a solid earthwork defensive position where the road from Fort Monroe crossed the Back River.
Butler decided to attack the Rebels at Big Bethel and run them away from such close proximity to Fort Monroe. Accordingly, he sent 4,400 New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont soldiers under the command of Gen. Ebenezer W. Pierce on a two column night march to Big Bethel. The two columns were to meet and deliver a surprise attack on the Confederates at dawn on June 10. However, as the two columns came together in the predawn darkness near Little Bethel, one column mistook the other for the enemy and opened fire, inflicting 21 casualties and alerting the Confederates of the Union presence.
Two Union regiments at the front of the column believed they were being attacked from the rear and retreated. The confused federal soldiers regrouped and continued the advance. At 9:15 A.M., they came in sight of the Rebel position and received fire from an artillery battery commanded by Maj. George W. Randolph. After two hours of hesitant and uncoordinated fighting, Pierce wethdrew back toward Fort Monroe. The 2,500 Union men engaged in the action suffered 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing. The 1,200 Confederates had 1 killed and 7 wounded. The fighting marked the first land battle of the Civil war — just eight weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter.
Fascinating Fact: Maj. George W. Randolph, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson, was born at Monticello. Within a year of the Battle of Big Bethel, Randolph was promoted to colonel and then brigadier, and then appointed the Confederate secretary of war.