Page images


Federal Governmert held the most important passages into Virginia. General McDowell was charged with the command of the division of the forces thrown across the Potomac. General Butler was placed in command at Fortress Monroe. The town of Hampton was occupied by the Federal troops, and Newport News, at the mouth of the James River, invested by them. At Sewell's Point, some eight or ten miles distant on the other side, the Confederates had erected a powerful battery, which had proved its efficiency and strength by resisting an attack made upon it on the 19th of May, and continued for two days, by the Federal steamer Monticello, aided by the Minnesota.

The first serious contest of the war was to occur in the low country of Virginia. On the 10th of June the battle of Bethel was fought.


The Confederates, to the number of about eighteen hundred, under Colonel J. Bankhead Magruder, were intrenched at Great Bethel church, which was about nine miles on the road leading south from Hampton. A Federal force exceeding four thousand men, under General Pierce-a Massachusetts officer who was never afterwards heard of in the war-was moved towards Bethel in two separate bodies, a portion landing on the extreme side of the creek, some distance below, while the rest proceeded across the creek. The landing of the latter was effected without opposition, and presently the Federal troops, who had marched up from below, closed in on the Confederates almost simultaneously with those attacking their front.

The attack was received by a battery of the Richmond Howitzers, under command of Major Randolph; the action being commenced by a shot from the Parrott gun in our main battery aimed by himself. One of the guns of the battery being spiked by the breaking of a priming wire in the vent, the infantry supports were withdrawn, and the work was occupied for a moment by the enemy. Captain Bridges, of the 1st North Carolina regiment, was ordered to retake it. The charge of the North Carolina infantry, on this occasion, was the most brilliant incident of the day. They advanced calmly

and coolly in the face of a sheet of artillery fire, and wher within sixty yards of the enemy dashed on at the douvie quick The Federals fell back in dismay.

The enemy continued to fire briskly, but wildly, with his ar tillery. At no time, during the artillery engagement, could the Confederates see the bodies of the men in the column oi attack, and their fire was directed by the bayonets of the enemy. The position of the enemy was obscured by the shade of the woods on their right and two small houses on their left. The fire of the Confederates was returned by a battery near the head of the enemy's column, but concealed by the woods and the houses so effectually that the Confederates only ascertained its position by the flash of the pieces.

The earthworks were struck several times by the shots of the Federals. They fired upon us with shot, shell, spherical case, canister, and grape, from six and twelve pounders, at a distance of six hundred yards. The only injury received from their artillery was the loss of a mule. The fire on our part was deliberate, and was suspended whenever masses of the enemy were not within range. From 9 o'clock A. M. until 1:30 p. 14. but ninety-eight shot were fired by as, every one of them with deliberation.

After some intermission of the assault in front, a heavy colamn, apparently a reinforcement or a reserve, made its appearance on the Hampton road and pressed forward towards the bridge, carrying the United States flag at its head. This colnmn was under command of Major Winthrop, aid to General Butler. Those in advance had put on the distinctive badge of the Confederates a white band around the cap. They cried out repeatedly, “ don't fire.” Having crossed the creek, they began to cheer most lustily, thinking that our work was open at the gorge, and that they might get in by a sudden rush. The North Carolina infantry, however, dispelled this illusion. Their firing was as cool as that of veterans ; the only difficulty being the anxiety of the riflemen to pick off the foe, the men repeatedly calling to their officers, “ May I fire? I think I can bring him.”

As the enemy fell back in disorder and his final ront commenced, the bullet oť a North Carolina rifleman pierced the breast of the brave Federal office. Major Winthrop, who had

made himself a conspicuons mark by his gallantry on the field. "He was," says Colonel Hill, of the North Carolina regiment, in his official report of the action, "the only one of the enemy who exhibited even an approximation to courage during the whole day." The fact was, that he had fallen in circumstances of great gallantry. He was shot while standing on a log, waving his sword and vainly attempting to rally his men to the charge. His enemy did honor to his memory; and the Southern people, who had been unable to appreciate the cour age of Ellsworth, and turned with disgust from his apotheosis in the North, did not fail to pay the tribute due a truly brave man to the gallant Winthrop, who, having simply died on the battle-field, without the sensational circumstances of a private brawl or a bully's adventure, was soon forgotten in the North. During the fight at the angle of our works, a small wooden house in front was thought to give protection to the enemy Four privates in the North Carolina regiment volunteered to advance beyond our lines and set it on fire. One of them, a youth named Henry L. Wyatt, advanced ahead of his companions, and, as he passed between the two fires, he fell pierced by a musket-ball in the forehead, within thirty yards of the house. This was our only loss in killed during the entire en gagement.

The results of the battle of Bethel were generally magnified in the South. It is true that a Confederate force of some eighteen hundred men, in a contest of several hours with an enemy more than twice their numbers, had repulsed them; that the entire loss of the former was only one man killed and seven wounded, while that of the enemy, by their own ac knowledgment, was thirty killed and more than one hundred wounded. The fact, however, was, that our troops had fought under the impenetrable cover of their batteries, the only in stance of exposure being that of the North Carolina infantry, who, by their charge on the redoubt taken by the enemy early in the action, contributed, most of all, to the success and glory of the day. The battle had been the result of scarcely any thing more than a reconnoissance; it was by no means to be ranked as a decisive engagement, and yet it was certainly a serious and well-timed check to the foe.

In one respect, however, the result was not magnified, and

that was in its contribution of confidence and ardor to the South. Thus regarded, it was an important event, and its effects of the happiest kind. The victory was achieved at a time when the public mind was distressed and anxious on account of the constant backward movements of our forces in Virginia, and the oft-recurring story of “surprise” and con sequent disaster to our troops in the neighborhood of the en emy's lines. The surrender of Alexandria, the surprise and dispersion of a camp at Philippi by a body of Federal troops,


* The disaster at Philippi was inconsiderable; but it was the subject of some recrimination at the time, and Colonel Porterfield, the Confederate commander, was subjected to a court-martial, which, in the main, exonerated him, and complimented him for his courage. Colonel Porterfield had been ordered to Grafton about the middle of May, 1861, with written instructions from General Lee to call for volunteers from that part of the State, and receive them into the service, to the number of five thousand; and to co-operate with the agents of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad ; and with verbal orders to try to conciliate the people of that section, and to do nothing to offend them. Finding, soon after his arrival, that the country was in a state of revolution, and that there was a large and increasing Federal force at Camp Denison, in Ohio, opposite Parkersburg, and another in the vicinity of Wheeling, Colone) Porterfield wrote to the commanding general, that unless a strong force was sent very soon, Northwestern Virginia would be overrun.

Upon directing the captains of organized volunteer companies to proceed with their companies to Grafton, they replied that not more than twenty in companies numbering sixty were willing to take up arms on the side of the State ; that the others declared, if they were compelled to fight, it would be in defence of the Union. Colonel Porterfield succeeded in a wrek in getting together three newly-organized companies. This force was increased by the arrival of several other companies, two of which were unarmed cavalry companies--amounting in all to about 500 infantry and 150 cavalry. These troops had been at Grafton but a few days, when, or about the 25th of May, Colonel Porterfield was reliably informed of the force of the enemy and withdrew his command to Philippi. Orders were given for the destruction of the Cheat bridge, but were not executed. The enemy's force at Grafton was about eight thousand men. On the 3d of June, through the failure of the guard or infantry pickets to give the alarm, the command at Philippi was surprised by about five thousand infantry and a battery of artillery, and dispersed in great confusion, but with inconsiderable loss of life, through the woods. The command had no equipments and very little ammunition. Such was the inauguration of the improvident and unfortunate campaign in West ern Virginia.

General Garnett succeeded Colonel Porterfield in the command in North. vestern Virginia, with a much larger force (about six thousand men), but jne obviously inadequate, considering the extent of the district it was ex pected to defend, the hostile character of the country, and the invading forces of the enemy.

and the apparently uncertain movements of our forces on the Upper Potomac, had unpleasantly exercised the popular mind, and had given rise to many rash and ignorant doubts with respect to the opening events of the war. The battle of Bethel was the first to turn the hateful current of retreat, and sent the first gleam of sunlight through the sombre shadows that had hung over public opinion in the South.

It is certain that the movements on the Upper Potomac were greatly misunderstood at the time, especially with regard to the evacuation of Harper's Ferry. General Joseph E. Johnston, who had been a quartermaster-general in the old United States service, and had resigned to take part in the defence of his native State, Virginia, had assumed command at Harper's Ferry, on the 23d of May. On the 27th of the same month, General Beauregard had relinquished his command at Charleston, being assigned to duty at Corinth, Mississippi; but, the order being recalled, he was put in command at Manassas, our forces being divided into what was known as the armies of the Potomac and of the Shenandoah. At the time General Johnston took command at Harper's Ferry, the forces at that point consisted of nine regiments and two battalions of infantry, with four companies of artillery-a force which was certainly not sufficient, when we consider that it was expected to hold both sides of the Potomac, and take the field against an invading army. After a complete reconnoissance of the place and environs, General Johnston decided that it was untenable, but determined to hold it until the great objects of the govern ment required its abandonment.

The demonstrations of the Federal forces in the direction of the Valley of Virginia were certainly thwarted by the timely falling back of our army from Harper's Ferry to Winchester. General Patterson's approach was expected by the great route into the Valley from Pennsylvania and Maryland, leading through Winchester, and it was an object of the utmost importance to prevent any junction between his forces and those of General McClellan, who was already making his way into the upper portions of the Valley. On the morning of the 13th of June, information was received from Winchester that Romney was occupied by two thousand Federal troops, supposed· to be the vanguard of McClellan's army. A detachment was.

« PreviousContinue »