Review Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia

Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia
J. Michael Cobb, Edward B. Hicks and Wythe Holt
Savas Beatie, 2013
312 pages, 140 images, 5 maps

Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia
Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia

In the spring of 1861, our Nation was ripped apart by the flames of civil war. The firing on Fort Sumter in April and the Battle of Manassas or Bull Run in July are looked upon as major events in the Eastern Theater. Sandwiched between them is the often overlooked and forgotten Battle of Big Bethel. Fought on June 10, 1861 on the Yorktown Peninsula, this clash would pale in comparison to the major battles that followed in the next four years. The construction of water reservoirs in the first half of the twentieth century has put much of the Bethel battlefield under water. However, this engagement has been brought back to the forefront of Civil War literature by the wonderful work of J. Michael Cobb, Edward B. Hicks and Wythe Holt.

I must confess that this narrative is the first I have read on Big Bethel. I was not disappointed, nor will other students of the War of the Rebellion. Cobb, Hicks and Holt have broken down a complex series of events into a detailed, informative and highly readable narrative.

The book begins during the War with Mexico as the authors recount the actions of John Magruder, the Confederate commander at Bethel, during the Battle of Chapultepec. Readers are then introduced to Southeastern Virginia, the area around the battlefield and the early efforts of both sides to take control  of that section of the Commonwealth. At the epicenter of this area of operations was the Union command at Fort Monroe under Benjamin Butler. A political appointee, Butler had been placed in command of the Department of Virginia and was charged with keeping a foothold on the recently seceded state.

The thorn in Butler’s side lay several miles up the Peninsula from Fort Monroe. Founded in 1817, Bethel Church was a clapboard building with doorways on its front façade, side and rear. Around the outset of the war, church membership numbered just over 300. The congregation could count 135 of this number as slaves. For Magruder, the church offered a readily available base from which he could launch attacks and harass Butler’s garrison. By late spring, the Confederates had turned Big Bethel into a fortified camp. To counter this threat, on the night of June 9, 1861, Butler sent his legions out to engage Magruder. The following day, the Yankees attacked the Rebels in their position at Bethel. The Federals would launch several different assaults on the Confederate position before finally withdrawing back to their encampments around Fort Monroe.

Butler's Yankees assault the Confederate position at Big Bethel Church. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Butler’s Yankees assault the Confederate position at Big Bethel Church. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Throughout their work, Cobb, Hicks and Holt introduce the reader to the men and the units who fought at the battle. Many of these men, including Daniel Harvey Hill, Governeur Warren and Judson Kilpatrick would each go on to achieve a level of notoriety during the conflict. One also meets the units that fought there. Standing out amongst them on both sides, mainly because of their colorful uniforms, was the 5th New York Zouaves. This hard fighting unit would distinguish itself later in the war at Gaines’ Mill before being mauled at the hands of James Longstreet’s command at Second Manassas.

The authors walk the reader through the aftermath of the battle and the efforts to exchange prisoners. A succeeding chapter discusses the burials and remembrances of the three “martyrs” of the battle, Confederate Henry Wyatt (Magruder’s only fatality) and Federals John Greble and Theodore Winthrop.

Of particular value and interest to the reader is that the authors propel the characters that are introduced in the drama through the remainder of the conflict and into the post war years. The narrative is rounded out by the fantastic maps of Hal Jesperson. I am convinced that other Civil War enthusiasts will come to the same conclusion I have. This book is a superb addition to their library.

3 Responses to Review Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia

  1. I read this book and thought it superb with very thorough treatment of the battle as well as its significance. We think of it now as miniscule, but in its aftermath the effect was profound for both sides. You are right that the authors did an extraordinary job at depicting the personalities (wherever you have Magruder, the scene is never going to be boring!) and the action. Who could ever forget the sight of Gouverneur Warren mounted on a little WHITE mule, brandishing a stick for lack of a sword?!

    I did find one little mistake. Henry Hotze, who went on to become the masterful Confederate spokesperson in Europe, is referred to as a “combatant.” But he did not actually fight there; his regiment was camped nearby in Southeastern Virginia and he only wrote about the battle from secondhand reports. A subject which I think could have been explained better was Magruder’s reasons for burning Hampton. I just read “John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal” which made it clear why he made the decision, whereas it seemed vague in this book.

    But those are obviously minor problems. The book as a whole is excellent–very moving.

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