Bethesda Church

An excerpt from Hurricane from the Heavens, part of the Emerging Civil War Series

In accordance with orders from General Lee, I moved to the right,” wrote Jubal Early, tasked with striking the Union left. “At this point [Bethesda Church], the enemy was encountered.”

Lieutenant General Jubal Early whose Second Corps would fight at Bethesda Church

Lieutenant General Jubal Early whose Second Corps would fight at Bethesda Church

“Ol’ Jube” could not miss an opportunity to strike at the Union hosts. Offensive, irascible nature defined Early specifically and the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps generally and when an opportunity of possibly catching the Union right flank in the air; well that was a specialty of “Stonewall” Jackson’s old command!

But, like Jackson in 1862, on the same peninsula, Early struggled with bringing his unified command–three divisions–into place and in conjunction with other Confederate forces, under the command of Richard Anderson.

As chance would have it, Early was in a great position. He had two veteran divisions ready to advance on the unsuspecting Union brigades.

The first brigade to advance, a North Carolina unit, under Bryan Grimes, had initial success against Union forces but the retreating blue coats were able to reform and in a lull as Confederate forces consolidated and prepared for another advance, the Union soldiers constructed earthworks–a staple of the Overland Campaign when timing allowed!

These earthworks were formidable enough when a brigade of Virginian’s, serving on May 30, under Edward Willis struck the Union breastworks.

“Never was a more gallant charge made,” a surviving Union soldier said of the charge. 

Met with overwhelming firepower–Willis fell and the brigade left approximately 200 men killed and wounded in its wake.

Colonel Edward Willis, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Bethesda Church

Colonel Edward Willis, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Bethesda Church

 

Anderson, whose First Corps covered the entrenchments when Early pulled the Second Corps out of the entrenchments to advance to Bethesda Church, ordered one division forward.

This division happened to be under George Pickett–who did a little reconnaissance and realized the futility of assaulting Union soldiers behind entrenchments.

More casualties were added to the rolls of the dead and wounded and a reshuffling of units and lines in eastern Virginia was the immediate results of the action at Bethesda Church.

Map of Bethesda Church (courtesy of NPS)

Map of Bethesda Church
(courtesy of NPS)

With one day left in that bloody May, the two armies would look toward another Virginia hamlet: Cold Harbor.

*Author’s Note–Unfortunately the Bethesda Church Battlefield has been consumed by modern growth and Virginia Route 360. Please consult the publication referenced above on how to best—and safely–visit the site.*

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