A depiction on 14 wooden blocks of the Battle of Big Bethel (Library of Congress)

HAMPTON — While driving along Big Bethel Road, which is the corridor that connects the City of Hampton to York County, there is a pleasant thicket of trees along the side of the road and then a bridge which crosses over a tranquil reservoir.

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Nature along the Big Bethel Reservoir (Courtesy of © 2017, Nancy E. Sheppard)

Bethel Park, located at 123 Saunders Rd., sits on the periphery of the roadway, just adjacent to the reservoir. It is truly a peaceful place. In the spring, you’re likely to find parent mallards swimming along with their ducklings, spot a blue heron off in the distance, and can wave hello to fishermen leisurely casting a line into the water. The sounds of crickets and the songs of birds flitter through the air in a serene, beautiful moment of quiet.

It’s hard to imagine that this idyllic place is the same setting for an early and obscure battle of the Civil War. But just as vegetation now grows along the ground, the dirt here once soaked up the blood of both Union and Confederate troops.

Rewind to 1861

The still youthful United States had reached a point where the long-standing issues that went as far back as the Founding Fathers could no longer be reasonably resolved nor compromised. One by one, southern states began seceding from the Union with what started as a loud volley of words to have those sentences violently punctuated by the April 12-14, 1861 attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

No one really knew what would come of this, with hopes that this war would last long only to be dashed by the lack of that expectation.

By the beginning of June that same year, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commanding officer of Fortress Monroe, started hearing rumblings of slaves being conscripted into service for the Confederate Army to build earthworks in both Williamsburg and Yorktown.

In response, Butler ordered the occupation of the land surrounding Bethel Church, which stood where the reservoir is today.

A sketch created on April 4, 1862 shows the earthworks created by the Confederacy (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a plan that was drawn up by Maj. Theodore Winthrop,  two columns of soldiers were to march north; one that would come from Newport News and the other from Camp Hamilton near Fortress Monroe.

Winthrop envisioned that this would culminate in Federal forces taking the Confederates, who were camped at the Little Bethel and Big Bethel churches.

On the evening of June 9, the two columns left with white rags tied around their arms and the codeword, “Boston,” should they encounter one another’s regiments. These precautions failed as the anxious armies mistook one another for the enemy and shots were fired in the dark. Several were killed, causing a momentary panic before reorganizing and continuing the advance.

Meanwhile, Colonel John Bankhead Magruder commanded the Confederates to abandon their position at Little Bethel and, instead, establish themselves around Big Bethel and Back Creek. There they waited, artillery at the ready, for the storm that was approaching.

June 10, 1861

As Federal troops marched in the early morning light, the silence that surrounded the peaceful rural area exploded with artillery fire. The Union regiments raced into two nearby farmhouses and into a tree line. They were ordered to return fire, but to no avail. The only loss reported was that of one mule.

A Richmond-based newspaper reported in its account of the battle that Major Winthrop leapt atop of a log, waved his sword in the air and exclaimed, “Come on, boys; one charge and the day is ours.”

A depiction of the 5th New York during the Battle of Big Bethel (Library of Congress)

Despite his enthusiastic display, this would prove fatal for the young captain. No sooner were the words uttered than he was shot by enemy fire. As his limp body fell onto the log from which he stood, fear of the reality of battle filled his men’s faces.

By 12:30 p.m., Federal forces retreated from Big Bethel, noting that, while not outmanned, were outgunned and lacked in the defenses which the Confederates established. While fleeing the battlefield, the Confederate Cavalry remained at their heels. Upon reaching Black River, the cavalry was stopped in its tracks, seeing that the Federals had destroyed the bridge.

The Aftermath

Some say that the Battle of Big Bethel is a forgettable skirmish. However, many historians point to its significance in the Civil War.

The Union marched 4,000 troops to the attack, while the Confederates waited with a mere 1,400 approximately. Federal forces suffered 76 casualties, with a loss of 18 men (including Maj. Winthrop), with 53 wounded and 5 who remained unaccounted for.

The only fatality for Confederate troops that day was Private Henry L. Wyatt, who is honored with an obelisk in a fenced off cemetery on Big Bethel Road.

For Magruder’s victory, he was promoted to brigadier general just one week later.

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Sunset overlooking the Big Bethel Reservoir (Courtesy of ©2018, Nancy E. Sheppard)

Today, the original Bethel Church and most of the earthworks are submerged in the reservoir. Only one earthwork remains visible to those visiting Bethel Park. However, you need to know what you’re looking for in order to spot it.

On the grounds where Maj. Winthrop drew his last breath now stands the off-base housing community for Langley.

If you’re ever near Bethel Park, take a moment to pull over. After drinking in this glorious oasis and the nature that surrounds you, trace the path in the trees and read the extensive signage that tells the story. Close your eyes and imagine what happened there 160 years ago.

As nature reclaims the remaining earthwork, and the ground parched from where it once soaked the blood in an engagement that pinned brother against brother, think about the lessons learned and the losses incurred during the first planned land engagement of the Civil War.

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