An Interview with The Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia author Edward B. Hicks, J. Michael Cobb, and Wythe Holt
: Why did you decide to write your book on this particular subject?
WH: The battle occurred within what are today the boundaries of Hampton, our town. Except for skirmishes in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, it is the only battle which ever happened here.
EH: We knew that there was a good deal more in terms of facts and in terms of the battle’s relevance than has previously been recorded. We wanted to write an in-depth study, not only depicting in some detail what occurred, but to tie it in to what happened before and afterwards.
MC: In most Civil War historiography, the battle of Big Bethel has been considered an incidental skirmish at a small rural meeting house. Indeed, it has been completely overlooked by many historians. However, at the time (the early summer of 1861) Big Bethel was of crucial importance and was widely discussed. Although later battles involved many more troops, we thought it important to explore Bethel’s many facets and the far-reaching impact it had in social, political, and military terms during the early stages of the war.
: What makes your book unique from other books on the same topic?
EH: We have been quite diligent in our efforts to unearth all the relevant sources, in research extending over several years.
WH: We also have more than 125 images, many of which have never been seen since their initial publication in 1861 newspapers.
MC: We not only vividly describe the details of the initial land battle of the war, we also delve into the context and pursue many threads of pertinent issues that unfolded leading up to the battle. We also deal with the important consequences after the engagement. This is a social and political history as well as a military history, not just a “drums and bugles” view of the conflict.
: What most interested you about writing on this topic?
MC: We were quite surprised to learn of the scale of the impact that the battle had in both the North and the South.
EH: It certainly was inspiring to learn of the scope of contemporary aspirations of both Northerners and Southerners, and the varying expectations of those who thought the war might be bloodless and short.
WH: I have never delved into military history like this before, and getting the proper timing and order of the intricate and often confusing and conflicting details of a battle proved to be a great challenge. Getting down the human stories of the soldiers and civilians involved in the battle, its build-up, and its aftermath also was deeply interesting and satisfying.
: How did you all conduct your research?
EH: We have collected materials on this incident for many years. We set out to be as comprehensive as possible, mining a multitude of both printed and archived resources including regimental histories, personal narratives, diaries, soldier correspondence, newspapers, and previous studies.
WH: We traveled to archives at the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, the National Archives, the Virginia Historical Society, the Library of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and Old Dominion University. We drove to visit, and even to discover, many various local sites involved in the battle.
MC: We have been fortunate to receive help and suggestions from many people who live in Hampton and other nearby cities and towns. Local folks are very interested in the history of their town. Local historians have been most generous in their aid.
: What are some features of Big Bethel that you think readers will really enjoy?
MC: It is important to note that Bethel was not inconsequential. At the end of the war, Bethel was always remembered by those in the South who, after the stirring victory, felt it to be a glorious time where all things were possible. In the North, the defeat caused their bubble of invincibility to be burst and served as a low point or setback, and ultimately, a spur to do things differently.
WH: Civil War aficionados will enjoy the details of the friendly-fire incident prior to the battle and of the several charges and other incidents during the contest. They will also like the descriptions of the scene of battle—the the smoke, the roar, the confusion, the gallantry, the foibles.
EH: The images in the book have been carefully chosen, and will greatly add to a reader’s enjoyment. Many have not been used before. I also like the first-hand descriptions of events and the personal stories involved, such as secessionist D. H. Hill poring over abolitionist Theodore Winthrop’s diary just after the battle, or the 12-year-old from Yorktown who helped to carry the baggage of the Confederates to the encounter, or the courage of Hannah Tunnel risking her life to carry intelligence to the Confederates. These small incidents bring the larger military events to life.
: What, in short, makes June 10, 1861, consequential?
MC: The Confederates proved that their vaunted military prowess and training was effective and could produce significant victory on the battlefield. The war would not be over before it began, but would be hard-fought, bloody, and perhaps long in duration. The Northerners proved that they were very game for battle, but needed better training and leadership. They would not roll over, but were determined to come back in better fighting fettle to preserve the Union.
: What are your thoughts on a couple of the generals from the battle?
EH: There were no Confederate officers at Bethel with the rank of general. Both Col. John B. Magruder and Col. D. H. Hill would receive promotions to brigadier general soon after the clash. Each of these two led their men well at Bethel. Hill had picked a fine location for a defensive position and did a good job of fortifying it. Magruder proved a fine leader in action, going from unit to unit to offer praise and help to encourage his men, and maneuvering his much smaller force so that it faced the enemy’s three charges quite effectively. Hill also proved both an inspiring commander and adept at maneuvering his forces so as to recapture a key forward redoubt.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, in overall charge of the Union attack on Bethel, was not present during the action, choosing to remain behind at Fort Monroe. He approved the battle plan, and selected his second-in-command, the inexperienced Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Pierce, to lead the expedition and subsequent assault. Pierce fell ill during the battle and stayed a mile away, so that orders had to be relayed and there was serious doubt as to who was in charge. All of his men concluded that he was a poor leader. The colonels who actually did the Yankee maneuvering on the field were more inspiring and capable, but were also inexperienced. Col. Abram Duryee of New York led his men in two bloody charges and acquitted himself well. Col. Frederick Townsend of New York turned back just when his men, if they were willing to risk possibly grave losses, might have forced the game but grossly undermanned Confederates to retreat, while Maj. Theodore Winthrop of Massachusetts fell just as he was leading a third charge that, again if the North was willing to suffer great losses, could have forced the enemy to retreat, and no other Northern commander stepped into the breach.
: It sounds like there may have been a lot of confusion during this battle. Can you elaborate?
WH: Major confusion is a part of every battle, and especially so when (as at Bethel) the troops on each side were unproven in conflict. The firing of muskets and cannon creates a huge amount of earsplitting noise and acrid smoke, the latter of which hangs over the field, both making breathing difficult and obscuring troop positions and maneuvers. Soldiers are constantly shifting and rearranging themselves during a battle. Commanders—just as prone to misjudgment and mistake as the next person—must order their men to charge or feint or move laterally within such an obscuring pall, so that movements are often blind or erroneous and even the best commanders often prove unable to predict a proper direction and target for a maneuver. Often troop discipline breaks down in the heat of the contest, with bullets and cannonballs whistling around the men, comrades and horses falling nearby, the din making it impossible to hear many orders, the smoke making the scene seem eerie and unreal, unexpected consequences being constantly encountered, and fear often becoming the predominant emotion. Battles are messy and unpredictable, and courage, judgment, and wisdom—among both troops and their commanders—are often at a premium.
Big Bethel was characterized by each and all of these problems. At least the Confederates were pretty well entrenched behind earthworks, so their battle confusion was less and was in a way contained by the tall earth mounds so the Yankees could not see enough to take advantage of it. The earth walls proved effective, also, at collecting much of the Yankee lead thrown at them, holding down the injuries and confusion on the Confederate side. It proved much easier for Magruder and Hill to provide good leadership when most of their men were within an earthwork.
Confusion occurred for the Northern troops even before the battle, when two columns became engaged in a friendly-fire incident. One group of Yankees, at the location where the two columns were to meet and join forces, judged erroneously that the troops coming up were the enemy and opened fire, causing serious casualties and helping the Northern troops to feel even more unsettled and insecure. Then during the battle itself, Col. Townsend of New York—by all accounts leading his men fearlessly and out in front of them—noticed some glinting bayonets in the distance, assumed that his men were being flanked by Confederate forces (when in fact it was a couple of his own companies that had become separated from the rest by a small rivulet), and ordered an unnecessary and deflating about-face and retreat. We hope the intricacies we cover will shed some light on this long-overlooked battle.
: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.
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