[The Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia by J. Michael Cobb, Edward B. Hicks, and Wythe Holt (Savas Beatie, 2013). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 285/310. ISBN:978-1-61121-116-0 $27.95 ]
Before getting to the battle, the book sets the scene with a thorough description of the road network and militarily significant natural features of the Virginia Peninsula's eastern reaches. At the tip lay massive Fortress Monroe, a secure Union base and a potential dagger aimed westward toward the Confederate capital. In charge of the Union forces at Ft. Monroe was General Benjamin Butler, fresh off a determined and effective command performance in Maryland. The Confederate defenders, ensconced along a line of field works anchored at one end by the Yorktown forts, were led by General John Bankhead Magruder. The activities of each side pre-Big Bethel, with the Union army seeking to expand its foothold and the Confederates hurriedly fortifying key defensive points, are amply detailed in the text. As with most books of this type, biographical sketches of key figures are provided, as are organizational summaries for each regiment and battery later deployed at Bethel. The social, political, and economic situation on the lower Peninsula is also presented. Secessionists residents largely fled up the Peninsula, abandoning their property to Union occupation. Amid this chaotic breakdown of antebellum social order, growing numbers of slaves, bidding for freedom, sought to enter nearby federal lines.
The Bethel operation itself is described exceptionally well from beginning to end. Although poor reconnaissance and staff work were to be expected at this early period of the war, the authors are justly critical of the naive decision by Union leaders to launch at night a two-pronged envelopment of Little Bethel, where it was falsely believed the main Confederate force resided. The resulting confusion contributed to a tragic friendly fire incident that clouded the campaign. The commander of the combined Union forces, Massachusetts militia general Ebenezer Pierce [the authors chose to go with this spelling rather than the common alternative 'Peirce'], then frontally assaulted the entrenched Confederates at Big Bethel. Confederate Colonel D.H. Hill's 1st North Carolina, supported by dismounted cavalry and artillery, repulsed piecemeal attacks by the far larger Federal force, which retired in some confusion. The book's maps, one tracing the march route and several more showing each stage of the battle, are quite good. The ground features mentioned in the text are all easily found on these drawings, as are the shifting positions of regiments, companies, and individual guns.
Although there was brave and competent (given the common level of inexperience) small unit leadership on both sides, the authors offer a damning portrait of the Union high command during the entire operation. In contrast, Magruder and Hill, undoubtedly aided by being on the defensive and behind earthworks, performed at a higher level. The book conjectures that the diversion of public and governmental attention to the even larger debacle at Bull Run likely saved Butler's military career. The wily lawyer was also able to successfully scapegoat Pierce. With bigger fish to fry, most of the Union forces on the Peninsula were withdrawn to the national capital defenses and Butler escaped disgrace, to be later assigned to command the land component of the enormously successful New Orleans expedition.
At the conclusion of the battle, readers find themselves roughly at the book's halfway point. Lengthy treatments of the physical aftermath, and the military and political consequences of Union defeat and Confederate victory, are present here. The instrumental role Butler's tenure on the Peninsula played in shaping Union policy toward the slave property of secessionists is highlighted, as are associated events serving as harbingers of the level of destructiveness that would be visited upon southern farms, towns, and cities later in the war. The most prominent example of the latter involves the fate of the town of Hampton. After both Bethel and Bull Run, the downsized Union command on the Peninsula was forced to contract its zone of occupation. Some Hampton buildings were torched by the retreating Federals, but the Confederates, hearing that the town was destined to serve as a large contraband camp, moved in soon after and almost completely destroyed it. The stories of prominent casualties and the post-Bethel careers of many figures associated with the battle are profiled in two lengthy chapters (which may have better served their purposes as appendices), and the following epilogue briefly recounts a number of early twentieth century Big Bethel commemoration ceremonies and monument dedications.
Military history students of the early Civil War period in Virginia have been waiting for a study of the depth and quality of The Battle of Big Bethel for some time. A serious treatment, presented in a scope commensurate with the level of importance felt toward Big Bethel by observers of the time, has finally emerged and is highly recommended.