Battle of Big Bethel Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia by Michael Cobb, Edward B. Hick, Wythe Holt
On June 10, 1861 near Big Bethel Church in southeast Virginia, Confederate forces under Col. John B. Magruder clashed with Union forces under Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. The significance of this very important part of Civil War history has been greatly overshadowed by the massive battles such as Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Stones River. Though Big Bethel did not have the large casualties and intricate tactical maneuvers employed later in the war it was full of a number of Civil War firsts that have been well laid out for the reader in the new work by Cobbs, Hicks and Holt “Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia.”
This is the first full length book on this small but important part of the Civil War in Virginia. The authors have laid out very succinctly the number of Civil War firsts that happened on the marshy lands near Elizabeth City and York counties in southeast Virginia. The commanders Col. Magruder CSA and Maj. Gen. Butler are well researched and their parts in success and failure are equally pursued. The important work laid out in this in depth study lays out some of the personalities of the commanders as well as the private soldier helping the reader understand both the military and political stances of the volunteer soldier on both sides at this critical part of the America’s most bloody contest.
- The authors pointed out several remarks made by the soldiers about the reality of war that was setting in among them. One soldier was quoted “This is not playing soldier now, it is a stern reality” speaking of the shrinking rations with rapid influx of southern troops at Big Bethel. The authors pointed this out to show the harsh reality of war which had not been felt until this point in the conflict.
- Only skirmishing had taken place until Big Bethel and it shocked both sides to see the horrors of the battlefield. “A Union soldier sat in the middle of the field exposed to Rebel fire cradling the head of a fallen comrade.” The authors laid out several first-hand accounts of the bloodshed and the “hailstorm of minie balls” that would be a part of so many battles to come.
- The use of spies on the battlefield also came into play at Big Bethel. It was noted by the authors that a young Mrs. Tunnel take advantage of an opportunity to warn the Rebels of the approaching Union forces. Spies and particularly female spies were used by both sides extensively as the war progressed on.
The spies, harsh conditions and the horrors of the battlefield were but a few of the firsts that were encountered by the soldiers and commanders at Big Bethel, but it was certainly not the last for most of these men. The war would stretch for nearly four more years and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. The authors have ably set down a great work that is well footnoted providing the reader plenty of more research material. The flow between beginning, middle and end is slightly choppy with the transition of author to the next but overall a well-researched study of The Battle of Big Bethel.