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Battle of Big Bethel (Bethel Church; Great Bethel), Va.,

10 June 1861

This early engagement in southeastern Virginia was one of 3 during June 1861 in which the Union army cautiously felt out Confederate positions. Big Bethel caused some embarrassment for the North, ended the life of Union Maj. Theodore Winthrop-a brilliant young author-and brought Confederate Maj. George W. Randolph, commanding an artillery battalion, to the attention of his superiors, who marked him for advancement; Randolph became a brigadier general and Confederate secretary of war.

Union Col. Joseph B. Carr, later a major general, called it "the disastrous fight at Big Bethel-battle we scarce may term it." The Federals proved too green, especially against the Confederate earthworks toward which they blundered during the night, even dragging one cannon by hand. Some of the Northern regiments had gray uniforms; thus the 3d New York drew fire from the 7th New York, whose commander, Col. John Bendix, had not been given the watchword. The attacked Federals continually shouted the watchword "Boston," but Bendix, unaware of its significance, assaulted. After a short retreat the error was discovered, but meanwhile the 2 Federal regiments in the vanguard, hearing the firing, concluded that the Confederates had reached their rear and immediately retired. Now, with hopes of any surprise gone, the Northern commanders regrouped piecemeal.

One Union colonel recalled that "for at least one mile from the scene of the action the men and officers were scattered singly and in groups, without form or organization, looking far more like men enjoying a huge picnic than soldiers awaiting battle." The Confederates fired at first inaccurately but soon found the range. After an hour's hesitant and confused attack, the Union troops retired, having engaged over 2,500 men arid lost 18 killed, 53 wounded, 5 missing. The Confederates had engaged 1,200 with only I killed and 7 wounded. Elated and encouraged, Southerners displayed trophies of the fight in Richmond store windows.

Source: Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War

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