June 10, 1861: First Battle of the War: Big Bethel

The first battle of the Civil War, Big Bethel was a classic example of the hazards awaiting untrained troops attempting to take offensive action.  The first of many defeats of Union Major General Benjamin Butler in the War, Big Bethel started off the War in the East with a humiliating little defeat for the Union, an ominous portent of things to come over the next four years.

Placed in charge of Fortress Monroe on the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula on May 23, 1861, Butler began operations to extend Union control into areas near Monroe.  On the night of June 9-10, Butler ordered 3500 Union troops in two columns marching from Hampton and Newport News, to perform a night march,  and launch a surprise attack on Confederate positions at Little Bethel and Big Bethel.  Butler’s plan would have tasked the abilities of well-trained veteran troops, as a coordinated surprise attack by converging columns after a night march is the military equivalent of brain surgery.  Expecting the raw troops he commanded to carry this out was simply absurd and an invitation to disaster.

The disaster ensued.  A friendly fire incident between the two columns gave the Confederates ample warning of the attack.  The 1200 Confederates easily beat off the piecemeal Union attacks.  Union casualties were 18 killed and 51 wounded.  Confederate losses were 1 killed and 7 wounded.  The Confederate press made much of the victory, although it had little meaning other than as the first example of the gross military incompetence of Benjamin Butler that would hamper Union operations for almost the entire war.  Here is Butler’s self-serving report of this fiasco: (more…)

Published in: on June 10, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 10, 1861: First Battle of the War: Big Bethel  
Tags: , ,