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The Battle of Big Bethel


The first land battle of the American Civil War was fought 150 years ago today in the Virginia peninsula. The battle is known by various names: the Battle of Big Bethel; Bethel Church or Great Bethel. Battles fought before this were smaller in nature, so considered skirmishes instead of full-fledged battles.

This battle took place in southeastern Virginia. Two other battles were fought around the same time, in which the Union army felt out Confederate positions. Major Theodore Winthrop, a Union officer, who happened to be a brilliant author, was killed during this battle and on the Confederate side, Major George W. Randolph, was marked for advancement to brigadier general and Confederate secretary of war, after the victory.

The battle proved disastrous for the Union. Federal soldiers, still green in the early stages of the war, were unable to defend themselves against the Confederate earthworks. Union soldiers blundered through them during the night.

Also, soldiers’ uniforms varied at this point in the war. The 3rd New York, wearing gray uniforms, drew fire from the 7th New York. On the Union side, confusion abounded among the regiments.  One union general recalled, “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.”

After an hour of confused attack, Union troops withdrew. They’d engaged more than 2,500 men, lost 18, with 53 wounded and 5 missing. Confederate engagements only numbered 1,200 with only 1 killed and 7 wounded.

After the Confederate victory, “Southerners displayed trophies of the fight in Richmond store windows”.


  1. I remember seeing a documentary on those first battles where people would actually have picnics and watch the battle from a high hill or something else equally as disgusting. I guess that innocent pleasure soon became the tragedy of war and they all realize the seriousness of what was happening around them. Great post, Susan.

  2. Thanks, Paisley! And yes, the battle of first Manassas, which happend in August of 1861, was attended by well-dressed locals out on a picnic, who had to flee when the battle heated up around them. Guess they had no idea of what a real battle looked like and thought of it more as a novelty. That soon passed as men were wounded and killed.

  3. Caroline Clemmons says:

    Sussan, what interesting info. Thanks for sharing.

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