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employ the able-bodied persons on wages and issue food
to those unemployed, to be paid for out of these wages,
and that $60,000 worth of such property was then in his
hands. He concluded this subject thus :

As a means of ofiEense, therefore, in the enemy's hands these
negroes, when able-bodied, are of the last importance. Without
them the batteries could not have been erected, at least for many-
weeks. As a military question, it would seem to be a measure of
necessity to deprive their masters of their services. How can this
be done? As a political question and a question of humanity, can I
receive the services of the father and mother and not take the chil-
dren? Of the humanitarian aspect I have no doubt. Of the polit-
ical one I have no right to judge. I therefore submit all this to your
better judgment; and as these questions have a political aspect, I
have ventured — and I trust I am not wrong — to duplicate the parts
of my dispatches relating to this subject and forward them to the
secretary of war.

Maj. John B. Hood (subsequently a distinguished Con-
federate lieutenant-general) was, on the 23d, placed in
charge of the cavalry on York river, for the purpose of
establishing a camp of instruction and making judicious
disposition of the pickets and videttes; the same day
Col. D. H. Hill (later a Confederate lieutenant-general)
assumed command of the post at Yorktown. On the
28th, two more companies of cavalry were ordered from
the camp of instruction at Ashland to Yorktown ; Hodges'
Virginia regiment was sent to Jamestown island as a
protecting force for the batteries, and Jordan's artillery
company was ordered to Jamestown island and Hupp's
to Craney island. Cabell's battery of light artillery
was ordered from Gloucester point to Yorktown, leaving
at the former place only 400 infantry under command of
Lieut. -Col. P. R. Page.

On the 31st, in a letter to Governor Ellis, of North
Carolina, General Lee said he had recommended forward-
ing troops to Norfolk and the transfer of the North Caro-
lina camp of instruction from Weldon to Suffolk, because
of the importance of holding Norfolk, which commands
the communication with North Carolina by canal and
railroad, and in view of the danger of the occupation of
Suffolk by United States forces and thereby closing com-
munication between Richmond and Norfolk.


At 9 a. m. of June sth, the Federal steamer Harriet
Lane opened on the Confederate battery established at
Big Point, across the James from Newport News, with
shot and shell from her ii-inch gun and 32-pounders,
from a distance of a mile and a half. The steamer fired
thirty-three shot and shell, but did no damage except to
crack an 8-inch gun. The battery in return fired twenty-
three shot and shell, which caused the steamer to move
off, apparently injured after a combat lasting fifteen or
twenty minutes. Commander R. B. Pegram, of the Vir-
ginia navy, praised the cool and self-possessed conduct
of the Portsmouth (Va.) rifles, who had never before
been in action, writing of them : ' ' Every man behaved
in the most spirited and creditable manner, and were so
regardless of danger that I had often to interpose my
authority to prevent their exposing themselves unneces-
sarily to the enemy's fire."

On the 7th of June, Governor Letcher, after an ex-
tended correspondence with the President in reference to
the standing officers in the Virginia service would have
in the Confederate service, issued a proclamation trans-
ferring all Virginia troops, ordnance stores, etc., to the
government of the Confederate States.

On the loth the Louisiana Zouaves, under Lieutenant -
Colonel Coppens, were ordered from Richmond to York-
town, as were also Alabama companies from Richmond
and Gloucester point, to form a regiment under Col.
John A. Winston.

Capt. W. H. Werth, of the Chatham Grays, Virginia
cavalry, on the 7th of June made a reconnoissance with 20
picked men of the Old Dominion dragoons, two men from
his own company, and accompanied by Captain Phillips,
Lieutenant Gary and Lieutenant Harrison, to examine
the Federal camp at Newport News. He then rode to
within a few hundred yards of the fortifications, when he
came unexpectedly on a party engaged in cutting wood,
the leader of which he killed, and the Federals scattered,
yelling, "Look out for the Virginia horsemen!" Two
companies from a Federal regiment, that had apparently
come to the rescue, did not fire their muskets, but in a
panic all rushed back to camp, yelling, "Virginia horse-
men ! ' ' even gunners abandoning two guns already xva.-

General Butler, having learned that the Virginians had


established an outpost at Little Bethel church, about 8
miles from Newport News and the same distance from
Hampton on the road to Yorktown, and that a short dis-
tance farther on the road to Yorktown, at Big Bethel
church, near the head of the north branch of Back river,
there was another outpost, where works of more or less
strength were in process of erection, ordered Duryea's
Fifth New York regiment ferried over Hampton
creek, at i o'clock of the morning of June loth, under
orders to march to New Market bridge, and thence by a
by-road to the rear of the Confederates between Big and
Little Bethel. This regiment was to cut them ofE and at-
tack Little Bethel, and Colonel Townsend with the Third
New York regiment ^yas to. march an hour later, with
two mounted howitzers, from Hampton, in support of
Duryea. At the same time Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn
was ordered from Newport News, with a battalion to
make a demonstration upon Little Bethel in front, sup-
ported by Colonel Bendix's Seventh New York regiment,
with two field pieces. The commands of Townsend and
Bendix were to effect a junction at a fork of the road
from Hampton to Newport News, about a mile and a half
from Little Bethel. The march was timed for the attack
to be made at daybreak. After the attack on Little
Bethel, Duryea's regiment and another from Newport
News were to follow up the fugitives, if they got ofiE, and
attack the battery on the road to Big Bethel while cov-
ered by the retreating fugitives. The troops all got into
position as ordered, but by some blunder, Bendix's regi-
ment, which had halted at the fork of the road, with two
pieces of artillery, without notice opened fire, with both
artillery and musketry, on Townsend's column marching
up in Duryea's rear, when but loo yards away. * Some of
Townsend's men returned this fire, but his column re-
treated to a nearby eminence, and Washburn, hearing
this fire and thinking his communication might be cut
off, reversed his march back to his reserves, as did also
Duryea. - Pierce, in command of the expedition, who was
with Townsend's regiment, fearing that his movement
was discovered and that the enemy was in force on his
line of march, sent back for reinforcements, when Butler
sent him Allen's First New York regiment.

Pierce, in the meantime, having ascertained the true
state of affairs, effected a junction of his ret "'Tients and


resumed his movement. Upon reaching the Confederate
camp at Little Bethel, he found it vacated, the Federal
cavalry having pressed on toward Big Bethel. He then
prepared to attempt to carry the works at Big Bethel,
commencing an attack about 9 :3o.

In his report of the i6th, Butler said, "This attack was
not intended to enable us to hold Big Bethel as a post,
because it was not seriously in our way on any proposed
road to Yorktown, and therefore there was never any
intention of maintaining it even if captured. The length
of the road and the heat of the weather had caused great
fatigue, as many of the troops, the previous night having
been cool, had marched with their thickest clothing."
From subsequent information, he was sure the force which
was first at Big „Bethel did not exceed a regiment, and
if his order of attack had been obeyed, he had no doubt
the battery would have been captured ; but the officers in
immediate command had an exaggerated idea of the
numbers of the enemy, and believed there were 4,000 or
5,000 troops at Big Bethel. A return, accompanying his
report, shows that one Massachusetts, one Vermont, and
five New York infantry regiments, and the Second United
States artillery were actually engaged in this contest,
and that the losses were 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5
missing, an aggregate of 76. Among the killed was Maj.
Theodore Winthrop, of Butler's staff.

From Bethel church, Col. J. Bankhead Magruder,
commanding "Hampton division," reported on the loth
that he was attacked by about 3,500 Federal troops with
several pieces of heavy artillery, that morning at 10
o'clock, and at 12 :3o had routed them completely, having
had 1,200 men engaged of his 1,400. Magruder's force
in the battle was: Col. D. H. Hill's First North Caro-
lina and Lieut. -Col. William D. Stuart's Third Virginia
infantry regiments, Maj. E. B. Montague's Virginia cav-
alry battalion, and Maj. George W. Randolph's Rich-
mond (Va.) howitzer battalion. A Louisiana infantry
regiment arrived after the battle was over, but returned
to Yorktown the same night, marching 28 miles during
the day, as it was not thought prudent to leave Yorktown
exposed without troops.

Col. D. H. Hill, with that fullness and accuracy of
statement which always characterized his reports, fur-
nished the particulars of this Big Bethel engagement. On

;;■ ■■■■■' -■ .y -.^j ;. .'- j:


the 6th of June he marched from Yorktown, with his
own regiment, the First North Carolina, and four pieces
of Major Randolph's battery, to Bethel church, on the
road to Hampton and 9 miles from that village, which he
reached after dark. Early in the morning of the 7th he
reconnoitered the ground preparatory to fortifying. The
northwest branch of Back river was found in front and
encircling the right flank, while on the left was a dense
wood about 150 yards behind an old field; a thick wood
and a narrow field were in the rear. The defect of the
position was a very large field, immediately in front of
it, across the river, upon which an enemy could readily
be deployed. The nature of the ground determined Colo-
nel Hill to make an enclosed work, nearly in the form of
a square, with the road running through it, with a re-
doubt for a battery, for the protection of the bridge, in
whick Major Randolph placed his guns so as to sweep all
the approaches. On an eminence across the creek, on
the right of the road, was placed an outwork, with an
emplacement for one of Randolph's guns.

During the day and night of the 7 th and all day of the
8th, Hill's men busily plied the few implements which
he had at his disposal, constructing defenses. Learn-
ing on the afternoon of the 8th that a marauding party
of the enemy was within a few miles of him, Lieutenant
Roberts with a detachment of his regiment, accompa-
nied by Major Randolph with a howitzer, all under com-
mand of Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, of the First North
Carolina, set out and chased the party over New Market
bridge. McDowell's company of the First North Caro-
lina, with a Richmond howitzer gun under Lieutenant
West, in command of Major Lane, of the First North
Carolina, was sent in pursuit of a second band, with
a result described by Colonel Hill, with his peculiar dry
humor as: "the second race on the same day over the
New Market course, in both of which the Yankees reached
the goal first."

Colonel Magruder came up in the evening of the 8th
and assumed command. On Sunday a fresh supply of
tools enabled Hill to put more men at work on the in-
trenchments, but worship was not omitted, as Hill was a
Presbyterian elder, of the "Stonewall" Jackson type,
who mingled faith and works. Magruder roused his men
at 3 o'clock, on Monday morning, June loth, for a


general advance upon the enemy, which he had planned,
but he had marched only 3^^ miles when it was learned
that the enemy in large force was also advancing and but
100 yards in front; the opposing commanders each hav-
ing decided to attack the other on that day. The Con-
federates quickly fell back within their intrenchments
and awaited the coming of the invaders. Colonel Stuart,
with his 180 Virginians and a howitzer, was stationed in
the works on the hill, on the extreme right, beyond
the creek. Bridgers' company, of the First North Caro-
lina, was posted in the dense woods on the left of the
road, and three companies of Montague's (Virginia) bat-
talion were placed on the right. Stuart's men, by vigor-
ous work, in an hour improved their temporary defenses.
At 9 o'clock the heavy columns of the enemy ap-
proached rapidly and in good order, but when Randolph
opened on them, their organization was broken up, yet
they promptly replied to the artillery, firing briskly but
wildly. An attempt was then made to deploy, under
cover of some houses and fences on the left of the road,
but this movement was quickly driven back by Ran-
dolph's artillery and its supports. In the meantime, the
enemy, under cover of woods, moved a strong col-
umn to their right to an old ford three-quarters of a mile
below the bridge, where Hill had placed a picket of 40
men. To that threatened point Magruder promptly sent
Werth's company and a howitzer under Sergeant Crane,
which drove back this attack with a single shot. At
about the same time some 1,500 Federals attempted, by a
movement to their left under cover of woods and fences, to
outflank Stuart and get in rear of his small command post-
ed on the right across the creek. This was detected, and
Stuart was directed to withdraw across the swamp. At
that aritical moment Hill recalled Captain Bridgers from
the swamp and ordered him to reoccupy the nearest
advanced work; Captain Ross was also ordered to the
support of Colonel Stuart. These North Carolina com-
panies crossed the bridge under a heavy fire in a most
gallant manner. In the meantime Stuart withdrew, and
Ross was detained near Randolph's main battery at the
church, but Bridgers crossed over, drove the New York
Zouaves out of the advanced howitzer redoubt and reoccu-
pied it. This daring movement turned the combat in
favor of the Confederates. Magruder followed it up by


ordering Stuart back to Bridgers' support. He promptly-
crossed the creek in the face of a largely superior foe and
resumed his former position in the intrenchments. A
fresh howitzer was also taken across and placed in the
battery; thus the conditions of the contention on the
Confederate side were made as secure as they were at
the beginning of the fight, without the loss of a single

The attack on the Confederate right foiled, Captain
Winthrop, of Butler's staff, led a strong column to a final
demonstration on the Confederate left, crossing the creek
and appearing in front of the left angle of the works.
The Federals in this advance had a white band around
their caps, and kept crying out, "Don't fire," practicing
this ruse to enable the whole column to get over the
creek and form in good order. They then began to
cheer lustily, thinking the Confederate work was open at
the gorge and they could get in by a sudden rush, but
two companies of the First North Carolina quickly unde-
ceived them by a deliberate and well-directed fire, in
which they were assisted later by three other companies
of the same regiment sent to their support. These joined
in the combat with great ardor. Of this Colonel Hill
wrote: "Captain Winthrop, while most gallantly urging
on his men, was shot through the heart, when all rushed
back with the utmost precipitation. . . . The fight at the
angle lasted for twenty minutes. It completely discour-
aged the enemy and he made no further effort at assault.
The house in front, which had served as a hiding place for
the enemy, was now fired by a shell from a howitzer, and
the outhouse and palings were soon in a blaze. As all
shelter was now taken from him, the enemy called in his
troops and started back for Hampton." As soon as the
road was clear, Captain Douthat pursued the enemy with
about loo dragoons, chasing them for the third time over
the New Market bridge, which they tore up behind them
and so broke the pursuit.

Of the Richmond howitzers. Colonel Hill wrote: "I
cannot close this too elaborate report without speaking
in the highest terms of admiration of the howitzer bat-
tery and its most accomplished commander, Major Ran-
dolph. He has no superior as an artillerist in any coun-
try, and his men displayed the utmost skill and coolness. ' '
Of his own regiment, the First North Carolina, he said :


"Their patience under trial, perseverance under toil, and
courage under fire have seldom been surpassed by vet-
eran troops. ' ' After stating that they had done a large
portion of the work on the intrenchments at Yorktown
as well as on those at Bethel, he said: "After the battle
they shook hands affectionately with the spades, calling
them 'clever fellows and good friends.' The men are
influenced by high moral and religious sentiments, and
their conduct has furnished another example of the great
truth that he who fears God will ever do his duty to his
country. ' '

Hill estimated that the enemy had five and a half regi-
ments, or about 5,000 men, in the action, while the Con-
federates never had more than 300 of their 1,400
engaged at one time; and that the Confederate loss
was II wounded, i mortally. Stuart reported: "Both
officers and men under my command behaved with the
greatest coolness throughout the whole engagement, and
none were injured." Major Randolph wrote of his bat-
talion: "I can say nothing more of the conduct of its
officers and men than to express the high gratification
afforded me by their courage, coolness and precision."
Capt. W. H. Werth stated that when ordered to the
left, to meet the Federal movement about a mile below
the bridge, he led his command across an open field
under a shower of shell and canister, and when he saw
the Fifth New York moving down the opposite bank of
the stream to cross the ford and turn his left, he "at once
took double-quick and made the distance of over a mile
in about nine minutes, beating the Zouaves and getting
in position at the ford in time to cause them to halt. "

In his report General Magruder lauded the conduct of
his men, adding: "Too much praise cannot be bestowed
upon the heroic soldier whom we lost. He was one of
four who volunteered to set fire to a house in our front,
which was thought to afford protection to our enemy,
and advancing alone between the two fires, he fell mid-
way, pierced in the forehead by a musket ball. Henry
L. Wyatt is the name of this brave soldier and devoted
patriot. He was a member of the brave and gallant
First North Carolina regiment. " It is generally admitted
that young Wyatt was the first Confederate soldier killed
in action in Virginia during the civil war. "The firing
of the howitzer batteries, " Magruder said, "was as per-


feet as the bearing of the men, which was entirely what
it ought to have been. ' ' Magruder left his cavalry at Big
Bethel, but marched the remainder of his forces back to
Yorktown. His cavalry pursuit of the Federals continued
for 5 miles, to New Market bridge across the southwest
branch of Back river, which the flying enemy had
destroyed. He wrote in concluding his report: "Our
means of transportation were exceedingly limited, but the
wounded enemy were carried with our own wounded to
farmhouses in our rear, where the good people, who
have lost almost everything by this war, and who could
see the smoking ruins of their neighbors' houses, de-
stroyed by the enemy both in his advance and retreat,
received them most kindly and bound up their wounds. ' '

On the 1 3th, General Lee acknowledged the receipt of
Colonel Magruder's account of the action at Big Bethel,
and added: "I take pleasure in expressing my gratifica-
tion at the gallant conduct of the troops under your com-
mand, and my approbation of the dispositions made by
you, resulting, as they did, in the rout of the enemy. ' '

General Lee, in correspondence with Colonel Magruder
at this time, urged the rapid construction of batteries for
water and land defense, hoped that the defenses at
Sewell's point and Craney island, which were in weak
condition, had been completed and provided with sufficient
garrisons; and among other things, said the troops he
was collecting at Suffolk should hold command of and
prevent the destruction of the railroads.

Hon. R. M. T. Hunter wrote from Lloyd's, June loth, to
President Davis regarding the rumor that the real attack
upon Richmond would be made from the Rappahannock,
which he thought practicable. He gave a detailed de-
scription of the routes that would probably be taken by
an invading army having Hanover Junction for its
strategic objective, and suggested the proper locations for
defenses against such a movement, not forgetting, good,
loyal. Tidewater Virginian that he was, that some of
these defenses would protect some oyster-beds.

On the 14th General Lee called the attention of Gov-
ernor Letcher to the slow progress being made, for the
want of laborers, in constructing the defensive works
about Richmond, suggesting "that all available persons in
and about Richmond be organized for the defense of the
city ; that they provide themselves with such arms as each


can procure, and that arrangements be made for the fabri-
cation of suitable ammunition. These are intended as
precautionary measures, which can better be made now
than upon the eve of an emergency, should it arise. ' '

On the isth of June, Colonel Magruder, by authority
from the governor, called into active service the Sixty-
eighth and One Hundred and Fifteenth regiments of
Virginia militia, to rendezvous at Yorktown on the 24th,
fully organized. The commandant of the Norfolk navy
yard was ordered on the i8th to furnish eight 32-
pounders, carriages for , ten 42-pounders, and four
large launches and cutters, as early as possible, for the
defenses of York river. On the 19th the steamer
Northampton was transferred to the war department for
an army transport on James river.

On the 20th Colonel Magruder issued a general order
assigning troops to various posts in his department.
Colonel Ewell was assigned to the duty of erecting forti-
fications in the vicinity of Williamsburg, in conjunction
with Capt. A. L. Rives, of the engineers; Col. D. H.
Hill, with his First North Carolina regiment, was assigned
to the command of the post at Yorktown, with directions
to submit further plans for its defense ; Col. T. P. August,
with his Fifteenth Virginia regiment, was assigned to
Williamsburg, to prosecute the defensive works at Grove
landing, Spratley's farm. King's mill and Tutter's
Neck, under the supervision of Colonel Ewell and Cap-
tain Rives ; Col. Charles A. Crump, with his Twenty-sixth
Virginia regiment, was assigned to Gloucester point, and
Col. J. G. Hodges, with the Fourteenth Virginia regi-
ment, to Jamestown island.

Left in temporary command at Yorktown, Col. D. H.
Hill wrote, June isth, to General Lee:

The enemy is burning for revenge for his total rout at Bethel
church. There can be no doubt that he will attempt to take this.
point, either by a night surprise or by a regular siege. We are totally
unprepared for either alternative. The development of our lines is
so great that they cannot be manned with less than 6,000 troops.
Now we have no siege guns at all, and our forces are divided between
Bethel church, Grove landing and Williamsburg. We are there-
fore liable to be beaten in detail with our present weak force, and
the York line may be lost at any moment. At this time there are
scarce 3,000 men in Yorktown and our line.s cannot possibly be de-
fended with fewer than 6,000. Permit me, then, to urge that more
troops may be sent here, and that some dozen siege guns be
mounted in our batteries.


To this Lee replied that if that place should be be-
sieged, measures would be taken for its relief ; that no
siege guns were then available for it, and that reinforce-
ments would be sent as rapidly as the arrival of available
troops would permit.

Gen. R. E. Lee, commanding, furnished, June isth, to
Governor Letcher, a statement of the military and naval

Online LibraryClement Anselm EvansConfederate military history; a library of Confederate States history → online text (page 14 of 153)