The Battle of Big Bethel
(From the "Confederate Military History, Vol. 3")
OPERATIONS ABOUT NORFOLK AND YORKTOWN--BATTLE OF BIG BETHEL--BURNING OF HAMPTON.
SCOTT'S fourth line of invasion had for its objective the capture of Richmond by way of "the peninsula" from Fort Monroe, using the navy on the James and York rivers to guard the flanks of the movement. Before this could be successfully made it was necessary to secure Norfolk and the Gosport navy yard and their defenses, which guarded the entrance to the waterway of the James, and Yorktown and Gloucester point, which guarded that to the York.
The general-in-chief was a soldier, who, naturally, placed the most reliance upon the army to carry out his plans. Therefore he attached the greatest importance to the direct movement on Richmond from Washington, by way of Manassas, and gathered his largest army for that purpose. Yet, one well informed as to the defensive conditions of Virginia, and especially of Richmond, at the beginning of the war, can but wonder that the most important movement was not made by way of the peninsula by the army, aided by the navy on the York and the James, since at that time there had been no preparations worth mentioning to prevent such a movement or the capture of Virginia's capital. This can only be accounted for by the demoralized condition in which the war and the navy departments of the United States were left by the resignation, as soon as Virginia passed an ordinance of secession, of such a large proportion of the best officers of these two arms of the service, natives of Virginia and other Southern States.
As before stated, when it had been decided that the Virginia convention would provide for secession, the first two objects to demand the attention of the executive were the capture of the armory and arsenal at Harper's Ferry and the arsenal and navy yard at Gosport in the vicinity of Norfolk. On the night of April 16th, some men in Norfolk, without authority, seized light boats and other small craft and sank them in the channel to prevent the escape of ships from the navy yard. There were at the navy yard at that time 4 ships of the line, 3 frigates, 2 sloops of war, 1 brig and the steam frigate Merrimac, and some 780 marines and other armed men.
On the 18th of April, Governor Letcher called out the militia of Norfolk and vicinity, and dispatched Maj.-Gen. William B. Taliaferro to take command of the same and endeavor, by a rapid movement, to secure the navy yard. After having done this he asked Governor Pickens, of South Carolina, to immediately send 2,000 troops to Norfolk to aid the Virginia militia. Pickens at first declined, as"it might appear intrusive," and besides, "we stand at present on the defensive." He said he would ask President Davis for advice. The latter wired Letcher for information as to his object in asking for troops. He replied that it was to secure the Gosport navy yard, where the Merrimac, the Cumberland, the Pennsylvania, and perhaps other vessels were at that time; that the channel was partially obstructed and it would require 5,000 men to take the place. On the 19th the Confederate secretary of war informed Governor Brown, of Georgia, that 2,000 troops had been ordered from South Carolina to Norfolk, to report to General Taliaferro, and asked that several companies be sent from Georgia to the same place, to go at once, or they would be too late. Davis replied to Letcher, on the 19th, that he had ordered sent him two regiments from South Carolina and some companies from Georgia; also that the resolution of the Virginia convention for an alliance had been received and accepted. On the 19th, Letcher telegraphed Taliaferro: "As we need powder, keep an eye to securing that article." On the 20th the governor of Georgia reported that he had four companies ready to start for Virginia. The Seaboard railroad furnished facilities for sending these South Carolina and Georgia troops directly to Norfolk.
Scott, on the 19th of April, ordered Capt. H. G. Wright, of the engineers, to proceed to the Gosport navy yard to aid the commodore there in command, in designing and executing a plan of defense; instructing him to call at Fort Monroe and consult Colonel Dimick regarding the sending of a regiment of infantry to assist in the defense of the navy yard, but to "bear in mind that, although the navy yard and its contents are of very great importance, Fort Monroe is still more so to the Union." Captain Wright at once proceeded on the steamer Pawnee to Fort Monroe. One of the two regiments which had arrived at Fort Monroe that morning, about 370 strong, under Colonel Wardrop, was marched on board the Pawnee, which arrived at Norfolk on the night of the 20th.
When Captain Wright reached the navy yard he found that all the ships there, except the Cumberland, had been scuttled on the 19th by Commodore McCauley, the commandant of the navy yard, and were fast sinking; but finding McCauley disposed to defend the yard, the troops were landed and dispositions taken for its defense, when Commodore Paulding, who had come on the Pawnee from Washington, decided to finish the destruction of the scuttled ships, and, after destroying the navy yard, to withdraw with the frigate Cumberland in tow of the Pawnee and a steam tug lying at the yard. To Captain Wright and Commodore Rodgers was assigned the duty of blowing up the dry dock, a massive structure of granite masonry, which they prepared to do by placing a mine in a gallery along one of its side walls, in which they used 2,000 pounds of powder, brought from one of the ships, connected by a train of powder and slow matches with the outside. This done, all the men were sent to the ship, except one to watch for the commodore's signal for lighting the matches to fire the mine and the buildings, which was done by Captains Wright and Rodgers. The lighted fires burned so rapidly that those officers had great difficulty in escaping from the yard, and were unable to reach the Pawnee, which had already moved away, as the Virginia troops just then advanced rapidly from the Portsmouth side and opened fire on the yard, the steamer, and the boat in which Wright and Rodgers tried to escape. They then rowed to the Norfolk side and delivered themselves to the commanding general of the Virginia forces, at about 6 o'clock on Sunday morning, April 21st. Their attempt to blow up the dock was not successful, and to burn the arsenal but partially so.
On the 22d, Vice-President Stephens telegraphed President Davis, from Richmond:
Gosport navy yard burned and evacuated by the enemy; 2,500 guns, artillery and ordnance saved, and 3,000 barrels of powder; also large supply of caps, and shells loaded, with the Bormann fuse attached. Yard not so much injured as supposed. Merrimac, Germantown and Dolphin sunk; Cumberland escaped.
On Sunday, April 21st, Richmond was thrown into great consternation by a dispatch stating that the steamer Pawnee was coming up James river to destroy the powder taken from the magazine at old Fort Norfolk and the cannon foundry above Richmond. Alarms were sounded, citizens rushed to arms, and troops and a battery were at once sent down the James to Chaffin's bluff, where the river is quite narrow, and hasty preparations made for the defense of the city. The Pawnee, after returning from the attempted destruction of the navy yard, was reported as making a reconnoissance up the James, which caused this alarm, revealing to the author-ties the utterly defenseless condition of Richmond, and inducing them to take steps for its defense. The advisory council met after the excitement had subsided, and directed Governor Letcher to instruct the governor of South Carolina to change the destination of his troops to Richmond, "where an effort would be made to concentrate as large a force as possible to make that city the base of operations for defending the interests of the Southern States."
Maj.-Gen. Walter Gwynn, who had been assigned to command of the Virginia forces at Norfolk, reported on the 23d that the Baltic had arrived off Old Point with troops from Boston and then proceeded to Washington; that the Cumberland, the only war vessel in Hampton Roads, was lying off Old Point. That day the advisory council asked the governor to direct General Gwynn to send a flag to Fort Monroe and ascertain whether it was true that army officers, citizens of Virginia, were kept in irons at that fort, or otherwise restrained against their will. The governor was also directed to have vessels that had been seized and detained in the waters of Virginia inspected, valued and detained for the defense of the State. Ex-Governor Wise, from near Norfolk, about that time urged the Richmond authorities to place heavy guns at Hampton to prevent the forces at Fort Monroe from taking the points of vantage and shutting up Virginia bays and rivers, concluding: "We are quiet here now, but fortifying, and daily along Lynnhaven seeing the steamers take reinforcements up the bay and the Potomac to Washington. This can be done all the time until we surround Fort Monroe and make the roads too hot to hold the blockading fleets."
On the 25th, the governor asked the advisory council the very important question as to how steam vessels, entering the navy yard at Portsmouth or other ports, on State service, could be supplied with coal, when in want, that being then the case with one such vessel at Portsmouth. Fortunately for Virginia, she had, in the vicinity of Richmond, the fine Chesterfield coalfield, which supplied during the war an abundance of coal for steam and manufacturing purposes.
On the 24th of April, the steam tug Young America went out from the harbor of Norfolk and was proceeding to take charge of the schooner George M. Smith, off Fortress Monroe, loaded with contraband of war, when it was seized by the United States frigate Cumberland, and there resulted quite a correspondence between General Gwynn and Flag-Officer Pendergrast, of the United States navy, in reference to that and other captures of vessels in Hampton Roads, the one claiming the right to make such seizures and the other denying it.
Learning that the Virginia midshipmen from the naval school at Annapolis had resigned and tendered their services to the State, Capt. R. L. Page, of the Virginia navy, at this time advised the establishment of a temporary schoolship for their use at Norfolk, for drill, etc., until their services were wanted for special duties, a suggestion that received the approval of the advisory council.
A strict blockade had been established by the Federal authorities, cutting off all communication even with other Virginia ports; Federal vessels were constantly making soundings from Cape Henry lighthouse to the barricades in the channel of Elizabeth river, and it was the opinion of Com. French Forrest, May 1st, that the United States intended to make a descent on Gosport navy yard to correct their recent error of destruction and evacuation. He suggested that a competent military force be stationed to resist such efforts, saying that he could muster only 73 men under arms in the yard, and scarcely 40 appeared from the town, and only two of those properly armed.
On the 30th of April, G. J. Pendergrast, commanding the Federal squadron, gave formal notice of an efficient blockade of the ports of Virginia and North Carolina. Col. S. Bassett French, aide to Governor Letcher, from Norfolk, May 2d, notified General Lee of this blockade, and that the troops from Suffolk, some 300, had been brought to Norfolk, leaving the Nansemond river approaches undefended. He thought 10,000 men absolutely necessary for the defense of the public property in and about Norfolk.
The Bay line was permitted, on the 4th, to resume trips for mails and passengers. A British ship from Liverpool, with salt for Richmond, was boarded at Old Point, but sailed on and delivered its cargo. It was reported, on the 6th of May, that Federal vessels chased and fired on steamers to within 12 miles of Gloucester point.
Lewis E. Harvie, president of the Richmond & Danville railroad, patriotically offered, without charge, to furnish transportation from his railroad to remove the ordnance from the navy yard at Norfolk to the interior. The council advised the acceptance of this offer, and that orders be immediately given to remove all ordnance from the navy yard, not necessary for its defense and that of Norfolk and Portsmouth, to safe points in the interior. Early in May, Gen. R. E. Lee was assigned to the command of volunteer troops ordered to the battery on Jamestown island.
Gov. I. G. Harris, of Tennessee, asked the governor of Virginia for artillery for the defense of the Mississippi and the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, and the council advised Governor Letcher to fill this requisition with fifty 32-pounders, a supply of balls, and two sample gun carriages. The governor was also directed to purchase the steamer Northampton, for the service of the State.
D. G. Duncan, the special agent of the Confederate government, from Richmond, reported to Secretary of War L. P. Walker, that intelligent and distinguished men in Richmond "believe Virginia on the very brink of being carried back, and say no man but President Davis can save her .... There is disappointment that he does not assume entire direction of affairs here .... General Lee has ordered Louisiana troops to Harper's Ferry .... The South Carolina troops refuse to move unless under orders from Montgomery. Military control is essential to the interests of the Confederate States. I doubt if there are 5,000 Virginians armed and equipped." That same 7th of May the council advised Governor Letcher to issue an order to Major-General Lee to assume command of all forces from other States that had or might hereafter report to him, or tender their services to Virginia, until orders are received from the President of the Confederate States in reference to the same.
It was reported in Richmond, on the 9th, that thirty vessels were detained at Old Point by Commander Pender-grast; one of them a Richmond ship, from South America, with 3,000 bags of coffee, the last of the fine fleet owned at Richmond, that by direct trade with Brazil made that city one of the leading coffee markets of the country, a loss she has never recovered.
On the 10th, Capt. H. Coalter Cabell reported his arrival at Gloucester point, by way of West Point, and the placing of his Virginia battery in position, and that he would soon have that place perfectly safe from attack. He suggested similar works on the Rappahannock, the Potomac and the northern side of James river, adding: "These positions secured and defended by heavy guns, Virginia is safe from invasion by sea."
From Richmond, on the 11th, Rev. Dr. W. N. Pendleton, of Lexington, Va. (afterward captain of the Rockbridge artillery, and later colonel and brigadier-general of artillery), wrote to President Davis: "As you value our great cause, hasten on to Richmond. Lincoln and Scott are, if I mistake not, covering by other demonstrations the great movement upon Richmond. Suppose they should send suddenly up the York river, as they can, an army of 30,000 or more; there are no means at hand to repel them, and if their policy shown in Maryland gets footing here, it will be a severe, if not a fatal blow. Hasten, I pray you, to avert it. The very fact of your presence will almost answer. Hasten, then. I entreat you, don't lose a day." Pendleton was a classmate of Davis at West Point, and an intimate friend.
Maj. Benjamin S. Ewell, in command of the Virginia militia at Williamsburg, wrote on the 11th to Adjutant-General Garnett that a better disposition to volunteer in the service of the State had been evinced by the citizens of James City, York and Warwick, and he hoped to be able to report within a week five or six companies mustered in and doing camp duty; that in Elizabeth City county, volunteers and militia numbered about 600 men, so that about 1,200 could be raised on the peninsula. He asked for arms and a battery of field pieces for these men, and for cadets to drill them. In a private letter of the same date, Major Ewell informed General Lee that there was disaffection in the Poquosin island section of York county, from which there had been no volunteers, and it might be well to give him authority to call out the militia of the Sixty-eighth regiment from that section if found necessary.
Col. Charles K. Mallory, of the One Hundred. and Fifteenth regiment, Virginia militia, from Hampton, on the 13th informed Governor Letcher that two companies from Fort Monroe had taken possession of Mill creek bridge and of the property adjoining, giving as a reason for so doing that they wanted possession of a well of water on that side of the creek. He thought their object was to hold the north bank of Mill creek, and perhaps erect works there. Considering that movement an invasion of Virginia, he had ordered out the volunteer companies of Elizabeth City county. General Lee went to Norfolk on the 16th to look into the condition of military affairs at that point, returning to Richmond on the 19th.
On the 18th, the United States steamer Monticello fired on the unfinished Virginia battery at Sewell's point, but did no damage. There were no guns there at that time, but three were immediately sent forward from Norfolk and got in position by 5 p.m. of the 19th. During the 19th the Monticello lay opposite Sewell's point, apparently not suspecting the placing there of three 32-pound-ers in battery. When the Monticello opened again at 5:30 p.m., the battery at once replied with such effect as to drive her off, and while many shot and shell fell in and around the battery no material loss was suffered. Capt. P. H. Colquitt, of the Columbus (Ga.) Light Guards, was in command at Sewell's point, with three companies from Norfolk. In the absence of a Confederate flag that of the State of Georgia was hoisted over the battery. He reported that the troops acted with great bravery and he had to restrain them in their enthusiasm. On the night of the 19th additional guns and ammunition were sent to Sewell's point. On the 21st the Monticello steamed up and fired twice at the Sewell's point battery, but when answered drew off.
Brig.-Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, of the Massachusetts militia, was assigned, on the 22d of May, to the command of the "department of Virginia," with headquarters at Old Point Comfort, and nine additional infantry regiments were sent to that place. On the 23d, between 4 and 5 p.m., a Federal regiment made a demonstration against Hampton, greatly alarming the citizens of that place. Maj. J. B. Cary, of the Virginia artillery, in command at Hampton, had made arrangements for the destruction of the bridges leading from Fort Monroe, but the enemy were in sight before the fires could be well started. He then sent Lieutenant Cutshaw to demand of the Federal colonel his object in approaching Hampton with so large a body of men. He replied that he had simply come, under the order of General Butler, to reconnoiter; he then gave assurance that he would make no attack upon personal property, unless molested, when both sides joined in extinguishing the fires at the bridges. This amicable understanding reached, the Federal troops marched into the town, remained for awhile and then returned. Major Cary reported to Colonel Ewell at Williamsburg, that this demonstration indicated the propriety of removing his camp farther from Hampton, where the people had responded indifferently to his call for aid in erecting intrenchments. As the site selected for his camp was probably visible from the ramparts of Fort Monroe, he thought the erection of the first tent there would be the signal for another demonstration.
On the 21st of May, Col. John B. Magruder, of the provisional army of Virginia, a Virginian officer of the old Federal army, later a major-general of the Confederate States army, was assigned to the command of the "department of the Peninsula," including the York and the James rivers, and he began organizing forces for defense. Maj. H. B. Tomlin, commanding at West Point, reported that he had placed guards near the York river railroad bridge over the Pamunkey.
A letter of General Lee to ex-Governor Wise, of May 24th, describes the situation at that date:
Since my arrival in Richmond I have used every exertion to organize troops and prepare resistance against immediate invasion, which has appeared imminent, and as almost everything had to be created, except the guns found at the Gosport navy yard, the preparations have absorbed all the means I can command. We are still engaged in making gun carriages for the river defenses and field service, preparing ammunition for all arms, constructing machines for the manufacture of caps, etc., ammunition wagons, etc., which must be continued. It seems to me, therefore, impossible at this time to prepare a marine battery, such as you describe, which would be effective in carrying out your design, as desirable as it would be. All the force and means at Norfolk are now employed in preparing defenses against a water and land approach. Could proper redoubts be erected at Willoughby's and Sewell's points, capable of standing a siege, and with an armament to command the adjacent waters, they would be of great advantage. Ineffectual batteries would provoke useless conflict and expose to the risk of capture the heavy guns therein placed. This has, in a .measure, been recently exemplified .... Gen. B. Huger, formerly of the United States army, an officer of great merit, has been assigned to the command at Norfolk, and I hope will be able to secure it against successful invasion.
On May 25th, Governor Ellis notified President Davis that 37,000 stand of arms in the Fayetteville arsenal were at his disposal; that troops were constantly coming in, and he asked what he should do with a regiment that was ready for service, concluding: "The people are a unit, waiting for an advance on Washington."
Brig.-Gen. Benjamin Huger reported, from Norfolk, on the 26th, that with time and means he hoped to soon get the defenses of Norfolk in order; that Williams' North Carolina regiment had arrived from Richmond, and the Federals were landing troops at Newport News.
Major-General Butler moved a body of troops, by transports, from Fort Monroe to Newport News, about 7 a.m., May 27th, and began intrenching a camp, of which he reported, "when completed, it will be able to hold itself against any force that may be brought against it, and afford even a better depot from which to advance than Fortress Monroe." His next movement would be to take the battery at Big Point, exactly opposite Newport News, and commanding Nansemond river, and once in command of that battery, he could advance along the Nansemond and take Suffolk, and there either hold or destroy the railroads between Richmond and Norfolk and between Norfolk and the South; then, with a perfect blockade of Elizabeth river, "Norfolk will be so perfectly hemmed in that starvation will cause the surrender, without risking an attack on the strongly fortified intrenchments around Norfolk, with great loss and perhaps defeat."
In a letter of May 27th, Butler informed Scott that the people of Virginia were using negroes in the batteries and preparing to send the negro women and children South; that squads of negro families were constantly coming into his lines and he was "in doubt what to do with this species of property," but had determined to employ the able-bodied persons on wages and issue food to those unemployed, to be paid for out of these wages, and that $60,000 worth of such property was then in his hands. He concluded this subject thus:
As a means of offense, therefore, in the enemy's hands these negroes, when able.bodied, are of the last importance. Without them the batteries could not have been erected, at least for many weeks. As a military question, it would seem to be a measure of necessity to deprive their masters of their services. How can this be done? As a political question and a question of humanity, can I receive the services of the father and mother and not take the children? Of the humanitarian aspect I have no doubt. Of the political one I have no right to judge. I therefore submit all this to your better judgment; and as these questions have a political aspect, I have ventured--and I trust I am not wrong--to duplicate the parts of my dispatches relating to this subject and forward them to the secretary of war.
Maj. John B. Hood (subsequently a distinguished Confederate lieutenant-general) was, on the 23d, placed in charge of the cavalry on York river, for the purpose of establishing a camp of instruction and making judicious disposition of the pickets and videttes; :he same day Col. D. H. Hill (later a Confederate lieutenant-general) assumed command of the post at Yorktown. On the 28th, two more companies of cavalry were ordered from the camp of instruction at Ashland to Yorktown; Hodges' Virginia regiment was sent to Jamestown island as a protecting force for the batteries, and Jordan's artillery company was ordered to Jamestown island and Hupp's to Craney island. Cabell's battery of light artillery was ordered from Gloucester point to Yorktown, leaving at the former place only 400 infantry under command of Lieut.-Col. P.R. Page.
On the 31st, in a letter to Governor Ellis, of North Carolina, General Lee said he had recommended forwarding troops to Norfolk and the transfer of the North Carolina camp of instruction from Weldon to Suffolk, because of the importance of holding Norfolk, which commands the communication with North Carolina by canal and railroad, and in view of the danger of the occupation of Suffolk by United States forces and thereby closing communication between Richmond and Norfolk.
At 9 a.m. of June 5th, the Federal steamer Harriet Lane opened on the Confederate battery established at Big Point, across the James from Newport News, with shot and shell from her Ii-inch gun and 32-pounders, from a distance of a mile and a half. The steamer fired thirty-three shot and shell, but did no damage except to crack an 8-inch gun. The battery in return fired twenty-three shot and shell, which caused the steamer to move off, apparently injured after a combat lasting fifteen or twenty minutes. Commander R. B. Pegram, of the Virginia navy, praised the cool and self-possessed conduct of the Portsmouth (Va.) rifles, who had never before been in action, writing of them: "Every man behaved in the most spirited and creditable manner, and were so regardless of danger that I had often to interpose my authority to prevent their exposing themselves unnecessarily to the enemy's fire."
On the 7th of June, Governor Letcher, after an extended correspondence with the President in reference to the standing officers in the Virginia service would have in the Confederate service, issued a proclamation transferring all Virginia troops, ordnance stores, etc., to the government of the Confederate States.
On the 10th the Louisiana Zouaves, under Lieutenant-Colonel Coppens, were ordered from Richmond to Yorktown, as were also Alabama companies from Richmond and Gloucester point, to form a regiment under Col. John A. Winston.
Capt. W. H. Werth, of the Chatham Grays, Virginia cavalry, on the 7th of June made a reconnoissance with 20 picked men of the Old Dominion dragoons, two men from his own company, and accompanied by Captain Phillips, Lieutenant Cary and Lieutenant Harrison, to examine the Federal camp at Newport News. He then rode to within a few hundred yards of the fortifications, when he came unexpectedly on a party engaged in cutting wood, the leader of which he killed, and the Federals scattered, yelling, "Look out for the Virginia horsemen!" Two companies from a Federal regiment, that had apparently come to the rescue, did not fire their muskets, but in a panic all rushed back to camp, yelling, "Virginia horsemen!" even gunners abandoning two guns already unlimbered.
General Butler, having learned that the Virginians had established an outpost at Little Bethel church, about 8 miles from Newport News and the same distance from Hampton on the road to Yorktown, and that a short distance farther on the road to Yorktown, at Big Bethel church, near the head of the north branch of Back river, there was another outpost, where works of more or less strength were in process of erection, ordered Duryea's Fifth New York regiment ferried over Hampton creek, at 1 o'clock of the morning of June 10th, under orders to march to New Market bridge, and thence by a by-road to the rear of the Confederates between Big and Little Bethel. This regiment was to cut them off and attack Little Bethel, and Colonel Townsend with the Third New York regiment was to march an hour later, with two mounted howitzers, from Hampton, in support of Duryea. At the same time Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn. was ordered from Newport News, with a battalion to make a demonstration upon Little Bethel in front, supported by Colonel Bendix's Seventh New York regiment, with two field pieces. The commands of Townsend and Bendix were to effect a junction at a fork of the road from Hampton to Newport News, about a mile and a half from Little Bethel. The march was timed for the attack to be made at daybreak. After the attack on Little Bethel, Duryca's regiment and another from Newport News were to follow up the fugitives, if they got off, and attack the battery on the road to Big Bethel while covered by the retreating fugitives. The troops all got into position as ordered, but by some blunder, Bendix's regiment, which had halted at the fork of the road, with two pieces of artillery, without notice opened fire, with both artillery and musketry, on Townsend's column marching up in Duryea's rear, when but 100 yards away. Some of Townsend's men returned this fire, but his column retreated to a nearby eminence, and Washburn, hearing this fire and thinking his communication might be cut off, reversed his march back to his reserves, as did also Duryea. Pierce, in command of the expedition, who was with Townsend's regiment, fearing that his movement was discovered and that the enemy was in force on his line of march, sent back for reinforcements, when Butler sent him Allen's First New York regiment.
Pierce, in the meantime, having ascertained the true state of affairs, effected a junction of his regiments and resumed his movement. Upon reaching the Confederate camp at Little Bethel, he found it vacated, the Federal cavalry having pressed on toward Big Bethel. He then prepared to attempt to carry the works at Big Bethel, commencing an attack about 9:30.
In his report of the 16th, Butler said, "This attack was not intended to enable us to hold Big Bethel as a post, because it was not seriously in our way on any proposed road to Yorktown, and therefore there was never any intention of maintaining it even if captured. The length of the road and the heat of the weather had caused great fatigue, as many of the troops, the previous night having been cool, had marched with their thickest clothing." From subsequent information, he was sure the force which was first at Big Bethel did not exceed a regiment, and if his order of attack had been obeyed, he had no doubt the battery would have been captured; but the officers in immediate command had an exaggerated idea of the numbers of the enemy, and believed there were 4,000 or 5,000 troops at Big Bethel. A return, accompanying his report, shows that one Massachusetts, one Vermont, and five New York infantry regiments, and the Second United States artillery were actually engaged in this contest, and that the losses were 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing, an aggregate of 76. Among the killed was Maj. Theodore Winthrop, of Butler's staff.
From Bethel church, Col. J. Bankhead Magruder, commanding "Hampton division," reported on the 10th that he was attacked by about 3,500 Federal troops with several pieces of heavy artillery, that morning at 10 o'clock, and at 12:30 had routed them completely, having had 1,200 men engaged of his 1,400. Magruder's force in the battle was: Col. D. H. Hill's First North Carolina and Lieut.-Col. William D. Stuart's Third Virginia infantry regiments, Maj. E. B. Montague's Virginia cavalry battalion, and Maj. George W. Randolph's Richmond (Va.) howitzer battalion. A Louisiana infantry regiment arrived after the battle was over, but returned to Yorktown the same night, marching 28 miles during the day, as it was not thought prudent to leave Yorktown exposed without troops.
Col. D. H. Hill, with that fullness and accuracy of statement which always characterized his reports, furnished the particulars of this Big Bethel engagement. On the 6th of June he marched from Yorktown, with his own regiment, the First North Carolina, and four pieces of Major Randolph's battery, to Bethel church, on the road to Hampton and 9 miles from that village, which he reached after dark. Early in the morning of the 7th he reconnoitered the ground preparatory to fortifying. The northwest branch of Back river was found in front and encircling the right flank, while on the left was a dense wood about 150 yards behind an old field; a thick wood and a narrow field were in the rear. The defect of the position was a very large field, immediately in front of it, across the river, upon which an enemy could readily be deployed. The nature of the ground determined Colonel Hill to make an enclosed work, nearly in the form of a square, with the road running through it, with a redoubt for a battery, for the protection of the bridge, in which Major Randolph placed his guns so as to sweep all the approaches. On an eminence across the creek, on the right of the road, was placed an outwork, with an emplacement for one of Randolph's guns.
During the day and night of the 7th and all day of the 8th, Hill's men busily plied the few implements which he had at his disposal, constructing defenses. Learning on the afternoon of the 8th that a marauding party of the enemy was within a few miles of him, Lieutenant Roberts with a detachment of his regiment, accompanied by Major Randolph with a howitzer, all under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, of the First North Carolina, set out and chased the party over New Market bridge. McDowell's company of the First North Carolina, with a Richmond howitzer gun under Lieutenant West, in command of Major Lane, of the First North Carolina, was sent in pursuit of a second band, with a result described by Colonel Hill, with his peculiar dry humor as' "the second race on the same day over the New Market course, in both of which the Yankees reached the goal first."
Colonel Magruder came up in the evening of the 8th and assumed command. On Sunday a fresh supply of tools enabled Hill to put more men at work on the intrenchments, but worship was not omitted, as Hill was a Presbyterian elder, of the "Stonewall" Jackson type, who mingled faith and works. Magruder roused his men at 3 o'clock, on Monday morning, June 10th, for a general advance upon the enemy, which he had planned, but he had marched only 3½ miles when it was learned that the enemy in large force was also advancing and but 100 yards in front; the opposing commanders each having decided to attack the other on that day. The Confederates quickly fell back within their intrenchments and awaited the coming of the invaders. Colonel Stuart, with his 180 Virginians and a howitzer, was stationed in the works on the hill, on the extreme right, beyond the creek. Bridgers' company, of the First North Carolina, was posted in the dense woods on the left of the road, and three companies of Montague's (Virginia) battalion were placed on the right. Stuart's men, by vigorous work, in an hour improved their temporary defenses.
At 9 o'clock the heavy columns of the enemy approached rapidly and in good order, but when Randolph opened on them, their organization was broken up, yet they promptly replied to the artillery, firing briskly but wildly. An attempt was then made to deploy, under cover of some houses and fences on the left of the road, but this movement was quickly driven back by Randolph's artillery and its supports. In the meantime, the enemy, under cover of woods, moved a strong column to their right to an old ford three-quarters of a mile below the bridge, where Hill had placed a picket of 40 men. To that threatened point Magruder promptly sent Werth's company and a howitzer under Sergeant Crane, which drove back this attack with a single shot. At about the same time some 1,500 Federals attempted, by a movement t:o their left under cover of woods and fences, to outflank Stuart and get in rear of his small command posted on the right across the creek. This was detected, and Stuart was directed to withdraw across the swamp. At that critical moment Hill recalled Captain Bridgers from the swamp and ordered him to reoccupy the nearest advanced work; Captain Ross was also ordered to the support of Colonel Stuart. These North Carolina companies crossed the bridge under a heavy fire in a most gallant manner. In the meantime Stuart withdrew, and Ross was detained near Randolph's main battery at the church, but Bridgers crossed over, drove the New York Zouaves out of the advanced howitzer redoubt and reoccupied it. This daring movement turned the combat in favor of the Confederates. Magruder followed it up by ordering Stuart back to Bridgers' support. He promptly crossed the creek in the face of a largely superior foe and resumed his former position in the intrenchments. A fresh howitzer was also taken across and placed in the battery; thus the conditions of the contention on the Confederate side were made as secure as they were at the beginning of the fight, without the loss of a single man.
The attack on the Confederate right foiled, Captain Winthrop, of Butler's staff, led a strong column to a final demonstration on the Confederate left, crossing the creek and appearing in front of the left angle of the works. The Federals in this advance had a white band around their caps, and kept crying out, "Don't fire," practicing this ruse to enable the whole column to get over the creek and form in good order. They then began to cheer lustily, thinking the Confederate work was open at the gorge and they could get in by a sudden rush, but two companies of the First North Carolina quickly unde-ceived them by a deliberate and well-directed fire, in which they were assisted later by three other companies of the same regiment sent to their support. These joined in the combat with great ardor. Of this Colonel Hill wrote: "Captain Winthrop, while most gallantly urging on his men, was shot through the heart, when all rushed back with the utmost precipitation ... The fight at the angle lasted for twenty minutes. It completely discouraged the enemy and he made no further effort at assault. The house in front, which had served as a hiding place for the enemy, was now fired by a shell from a howitzer, and the outhouse and palings were soon in a blaze. As all shelter was now taken from him, the enemy called in his troops and started back for Hampton." As soon as the road was clear, Captain Douthat pursued the enemy with about 100 dragoons, chasing them for the third time over the New Market bridge, which they tore up behind them and so broke the pursuit.
Of the Richmond howitzers, Colonel Hill wrote: "I cannot close this too elaborate report without speaking in the highest terms of admiration of the howitzer battery and its most accomplished commander, Major Randolph. He has no superior as an artillerist in any country, and his men displayed the utmost skill and coolness."
Of his own regiment, the First North Carolina, he said:
"Their patience under trial, perseverance under toil, and courage under fire have seldom been surpassed by veteran troops." After stating that they had done a large portion of the work on the intrenchments at Yorktown as well as on those at Bethel, he said: "After the battle they shook hands affectionately with the spades, calling them 'clever fellows and good friends.' The men are influenced by high moral and religious sentiments, and their conduct has furnished another example of the great truth that he who fears God will ever do his duty to his country."
Hill estimated that the enemy had five and a half regiments, or about 5,000 men, in the action, while the Confederates never had more than 300 of their 1,400 engaged at one time; and that the Confederate loss was 11 wounded, 1 mortally. Stuart reported: "Both officers and men under my command behaved with the greatest coolness throughout the whole engagement, and none were injured." Major Randolph wrote of his battalion: "I can say nothing more of the conduct of its officers and men than to express the high gratification afforded me by their courage, coolness and precision." Capt. W. H. Werth stated that when ordered to the left, to meet the Federal movement about a mile below the bridge, he led his command across an open field under a shower of shell and canister, and when he saw the Fifth New York moving down the opposite bank of the stream to cross the ford and turn his left, he "at once took double-quick and made the distance of over a mile in about nine minutes, beating the Zouaves and getting in position at the ford in time to cause them to halt."
In his report General Magruder lauded the conduct of his men, adding: "Too much praise cannot be bestowed upon the heroic soldier whom we lost. He was one of four who volunteered to set fire to a house in our front, which was thought to afford protection to our enemy, and advancing alone between the two fires, he fell midway, pierced in the forehead by a musket ball. Henry L. Wyatt is the name of this brave soldier and devoted patriot. He was a member of the brave and gallant First North Carolina regiment." It is generally admitted that young Wyatt was the first Confederate soldier killed in action in Virginia during the civil war. "The firing of the howitzer batteries," Magruder said, "was as perfect as the bearing of the men, which was entirely what it ought to have been." Magruder left his cavalry at Big Bethel, but marched the remainder of his forces back to Yorktown. His cavalry pursuit of the Federals continued for 5 miles, to New Market bridge across the southwest branch of Back river, which the flying enemy had destroyed. He wrote in concluding his report: "Our means of transportation were exceedingly limited, but the wounded enemy were carried with our own wounded to farmhouses in our rear, where the good people, who have lost almost everything by this war, and who could see the smoking ruins of their neighbors' houses, destroyed by the enemy both in his advance and retreat, received them most kindly and bound up their wounds."
On the 13th, General Lee acknowledged the receipt of Colonel Magruder's account of the action at Big Bethel, and added: "I take pleasure in expressing my gratification at the gallant conduct of the troops under your command, and my approbation of the dispositions made by you, resulting, as they did, in the rout of the enemy."
General Lee, in correspondence with Colonel Magruder at this time, urged the rapid construction of batteries for water and land defense, hoped that the defenses at Sewell's point and Craney island, which were in weak condition, had been completed and provided with sufficient garrisons; and among other things, said the troops he was collecting at Suffolk should hold command of and prevent the destruction of the railroads.
Hon. R. M. T. Hunter wrote from Lloyd's, June 10th, to President Davis regarding the rumor that the real attack upon Richmond would be made from the Rappahannock, which he thought practicable. He gave a detailed description of the routes that would probably be taken by an invading army having Hanover Junction for its strategic objective, and suggested the proper locations for defenses against such a movement, not forgetting, good, loyal, Tidewater Virginian that he was, that some of these defenses would protect some oyster-beds.
On the 14th General Lee called the attention of Governor Letcher to the slow progress being made, for the want of laborers, in constructing the defensive works about Richmond, suggesting "that all available persons in and about Richmond be organized for the defense of the city; that they provide themselves with such arms as each can procure, and that arrangements be made for the fabrication of suitable ammunition. These are intended as precautionary measures, which can better be made now than upon the eve of an emergency, should it arise."
On the 15th of June, Colonel Magruder, by authority from the governor, called into active service the Sixty-eighth and One Hundred and Fifteenth regiments of Virginia militia, to rendezvous at Yorktown on the 24th, fully organized. The commandant of the Norfolk navy yard was ordered on the 18th to furnish eight 32-pounders, carriages for ten 42-pounders, and four large launches and cutters, as early as possible, for the defenses of York river. On the 19th the steamer Northampton was transferred to the war department for an army transport on James river.
On the 20th Colonel Magruder issued a general order assigning troops to various posts in his department. Colonel Ewell was assigned to the duty of erecting fortifications in the vicinity of Williamsburg, in conjunction with Capt. A. L. Rives, of the engineers; Col. D. H. Hill, with his First North Carolina regiment, was assigned to the command of the post at Yorktown, with directions to submit further plans for its defense; Col. T. P. August, with his Fifteenth Virginia regiment, was assigned to Williamsburg, to prosecute the defensive works at Grove landing, Spratley's farm, King's mill and Tutter's Neck, under the supervision of Colonel Ewell and Captain Rives; Col. Charles A. Crump, with his Twenty-sixth Virginia regiment, was assigned to Gloucester point, and Col. J. G. Hodges, with the Fourteenth Virginia regiment, to Jamestown island.
Left in temporary command at Yorktown, Col. D. H. Hill wrote, June 15th, to General Lee:
The enemy is burning for revenge for his total rout at Bethel church. There can be no doubt that he will attempt to take this point, either by a night surprise or by a regular siege. We are totally unprepared for either alternative. The development of our lines is so great that they cannot be manned with less than 6,000 troops. Now we have no siege guns at all, and our forces are divided between Bethel church, Grove landing and Williamsburg. We are therefore liable to be beaten in detail with our present weak force, and the York line may be lost at any moment. At this time there are scarce 3,000 men in Yorktown and our lines cannot possibly be defended with fewer than 6,000. Permit me, then, to urge that more troops may be sent here, and that some dozen siege guns be mounted in our batteries.
To this Lee replied that if that place should be besieged, measures would be taken for its relief; that no siege guns were then available for it, and that reinforcements would be sent as rapidly as the arrival of available troops would permit.
Gen. R. E. Lee, commanding, furnished, June 15th, to Governor Letcher, a statement of the military and naval preparations Virginia had made for her defense, from the date of her separation from the United States government to the date of the transfer of the military operations of the State to the Confederate government. (1) Arrangements were made for the establishment of batteries to prevent the ascent of her tidal rivers by hostile vessels, and as soon as sites for these batteries were selected, their construction was begun and their armament and defense committed to the Virginia navy. (2) Preparations were also begun for receiving into the service of the State volunteer companies, and for organizing, arming and equipping these; establishing a rendezvous, appointing mustering officers and providing for their subsistence and shelter. The first estimate of the number of troops of all arms required, based upon the points to be defended, was for 51,000 men. This estimated quota from each portion of the State was furnished except from the western section. (3) Arrangements were made for calling out volunteers from the western section, at the same time and in the same manner as from the east, but up to the date of his writing, this had been but feebly responded to.
Complete returns had not yet been received from the troops in the field, but, from the best information within his reach, General Lee believed the number of Virginia troops in the service was about 35,000, probably more, as the report of her ordnance officer showed that he had issued 2,054 rifles and carbines and 41,604 muskets, besides pistols and sabers for the cavalry. In addition to these, 13,000 arms had been issued from the Lexington arsenal, making a total of 56,658. From Lexington 7,000 arms had been issued to troops from other States, and also several thousand from the arsenal at Richmond. About 5,000 men of the Virginia companies were armed and equipped when received into the State's service, so that the number of Virginia troops in the field was about 40,000. Virginia's adjutant-general, W. H. Richardson, reported, April 17th, that Virginia had in her service, at that date, of armed volunteers, 3,350 cavalry, 780 artillery, 5,700 light infantry, and 2,130 riflemen; a total of 12,050. General Lee added:
When it is remembered that this body of men were called from a state of profound peace to one of unexpected war, you will have reason to commend the alacrity with which they left their homes and families and prepared themselves for the defense of the State. The assembling of men, however, was not the most difficult operation. Provision for their instruction, subsistence, equipment, clothing, shelter and transportation in the field required more time and labor. Ammunition of every kind had to be manufactured. The carriages of the guns for river, land and field service had to be made, with the necessary implements, caissons, battery wagons, etc. One hundred and fifteen guns for field service have thus been provided. from which twenty light batteries, of four guns each, have been furnished, with the requisite horses, harness, etc.
The defenses for Virginia rivers were provided for as follows: On the James, two batteries and two steamers, mounting 40 guns, ranging from 32-pounders to 8 and 9-inch columbiads; with arrangements made for mounting 60 guns in the defenses around Richmond, and for a naval battery of 6 and 12-pound howitzers. On the York, three batteries had been constructed, mounting 30 guns. On the Potomac, sites for batteries had been selected and arrangements made for their construction, but as the command of that river was in possession of the United States, a larger force was required for their security than could be devoted to that purpose; therefore, only a battery at Aquia creek, with 12 guns, had been completed. On the Rappahannock, a four-gun battery of 32-pounders and 8-inch columbiads had been erected. On the Elizabeth, to guard the approaches to Norfolk and the navy yard, six batteries, mounting eighty-five 32-pounders and 8 and 9-inch columbiads, had been erected. On the Nansemond, to prevent access to the railroad from Norfolk, three batteries, mounting 19 guns, had been constructed. In addition to the batteries described, other works had been constructed for their land defense, exceeding, in many instances, the works on the batteries themselves, such as an extensive line of field works for the security of Norfolk on the sides toward the bay, and redoubts for the same purpose at Jamestown island, Gloucester point, Yorktown, and across the neck of land below Williamsburg.
In the conduct of naval affairs by Virginia, the sunken frigate United States had been raised at the navy yard and prepared for a schoolship and for harbor defense, with a deck battery of nineteen 32-pounders and 9-inch columbiads; the frigate Merrimac (the famous ram Virginia of 1862) had been raised and was in the dry dock, and arrangements had been made for raising the Germantown and the Plymouth.
Magruder reported on the 16th, from Yorktown, that he had 5,550 effective men; that he should have 4,500 more to make his line secure, and 15 heavy guns. General Huger reported, from Norfolk, on the 17th, that the Federals were placing artillery on the Ripraps, and on Saturday afternoon the command at Sewell's point was surprised by having eight or ten shells from that artillery exploded in and around their battery.
On the 18th, General Lee, as Magruder had requested, directed Lieut. R. R. Carter, commanding the steam tender Teazer, to co-operate with the batteries on Jamestown island in the defense of James river. He informed Colonel Magruder that requisition had been made for eight 32-pounders and four 42-pounder carronades for the defense of the land approaches to Yorktown, and for four boats, for service in York river, capable of transporting 400 or 500 men each; and that Captain Whittle was authorized to send to Yorktown the guns intended for Gloucester point, if not immediately wanted at that place. To Hon. W. C. Parks, of the Virginia convention, he wrote that the supply of arms for Virginia volunteers was so limited that he had suggested to the governor a method of procuring some old flint-lock muskets, which, if successful, he hoped would furnish the means of giving arms to the men in Grayson county and others that were much in want.
Colonel Magruder reported on the 18th, from Bethel church, that he then occupied that post with the Second Louisiana, to which he had attached the York and Warwick companies, two batteries of artillery and some cavalry, and had placed a Georgia regiment in support; and next day he wrote, that threatened by an advance of the enemy, via Warwick Court House, he had evacuated Bethel and marched for Yorktown. He learned, afterward, that the enemy had only come out to procure horses and mules and had then returned; and he found his men much fatigued and dispirited by this constant marching and countermarching, made necessary by the weakness of his force, but still "that must be done and the enemy kept in his trenches and fortifications."
On June 24th, a war steamer carne opposite the house of J. W. Gresham, on the Rappahannock river, below Urbana, and sent men ashore to purchase supplies. On being refused, and seeing a small company of Lancaster troops approaching, the enemy fled precipitately to their boats, fired on as they shoved off. The ship then opened and fired fifty-three shot and shell at Mr. Gresham's house, one of the balls striking the bed in which Mrs. Gresham was lying iii, and a shell exploding in an outhouse to which she was removed.
General Butler about this time reported that Colonel Allen, with a small detachment of his men, had, without orders, burned a wheat field of some twenty-five acres, belonging to a widow, which he had safeguarded, his only excuse being that they were getting the wheat. "For this wanton destruction and waste he had the privates punished and the colonel arrested and held for trial, as such destruction and waste of the property of our enemies even, will disgrace us."
On June 27th, Col. Lafayette McLaws (later major-general) was ordered to take command of all the troops in the vicinity of Williamsburg; Colonel Ewell was ordered to report to him; Capt. A. L. Rives was also assigned to duty with Colonel McLaws, and Colonel August's station was changed to King's mill or Grove landing.
About midnight of July 4th, Lieut.-Col. Charles D. Dreux, of the First Louisiana battalion, led a detachment of 150 infantry, 1 howitzer and about 15 or 20 cavalry, in an advance in the direction of Newport News and took post, in ambush, near Curtis' farm. The videttes soon announced the approach of about 100 Federal cavalry. Notwithstanding the orders that had been given to the men not to fire until ordered, some shots were exchanged between the videttes and some of the men concealed on the left, and the enemy, and Colonel Dreux was mortally wounded. Capt. S. W. Fisk, of the Louisiana battalion, succeeding to the command, ordered his men to wheel into line; but in the meantime the enemy had disappeared, the horses, taking fright, had run off down the road with the gun, and the opportunity for a surprise having passed, and there being a large force of the enemy near, the scouting party returned to camp. Colonel Magruder reported that he had himself gone, the morning before, with a larger force to the York road, as the enemy had crossed Hampton creek, leaving Dreux in command, who organized this expedition after he left. He ascertained that the enemy's force which fled was about 400, and that a war steamer came up after the skirmish and threw shells into the woods where it took place. The gallant colonel died from his wounds the next morning.
On the 11th, Thomas H. Wynne, chairman of the city committee on defenses, informed the secretary of war that the city council of Richmond was willing to bear a fair proportion of the expenses of erecting defenses around the city, but as that was an important point to the Confederate government, it should take charge of this work, as it had done elsewhere.
Brigadier-General Huger, from Norfolk, July 12th, submitted a list of the Virginia volunteer companies under his command, as organized into regiments and battalions, calling attention to the fact that all the infantry regiments had their complement of companies, except the Forty-first, which would soon be filled up by companies ready to be mustered in. These regiments were: The Third, Roger A. Pryor, colonel, F. H. Archer, lieu-tenant-colonel, and Joseph Mayo, major; the Sixth, William Mahone, colonel, Thomas J. Corprew, lieutenant-colonel, and W. P. Lundy, major; the Ninth, F. H. Smith, colonel, J. T. L. Preston, lieutenant-colonel, and Stapleton Crutchfield, major (the superintendent and two professors of the Virginia military institute); the Twelfth, D. A. Weisiger, colonel, F. L. Taylor, lieuten-ant-colonel, and Edgar L. Brockett, major; the Twenty-sixth, R. E. Colston, colonel, H. T. Parish, lieutenant-colonel, and John C. Page, major; the Forty-first, John R. Chambliss, Jr., colonel, George Blow, Jr., lieutenant-colonel, and Fred W. Smith, major. The Forty-first had but seven companies. There was a cavalry regiment of eight companies, without field officers, and a battalion of field artillery of five companies, without field officers. Of the officers named, Mahone afterward became major-general, and Pryor, Weisiger, Colston and Chambliss, brigadier-generals.
Col. Robert Johnston, commanding the cavalry at Cockletown, reported that a volunteer scout of four had returned to camp that morning, bringing in Captain Jenkins and Lieutenant Shurtleff of the United States naval brigade. This scout met a party of six, near New Market bridge, killed Major Rawlings, wounded the two officers brought in, and put the rest to flight. Soon afterward Colonel Johnston reported that he would occupy Bethel, endeavor to secure the negroes from the lower part of the peninsula, and then occupy Harrod's and Young's mills, whence he could best operate with safety against marauding parties.
July 24th, on account of the panic following the battle of Bull Run, Butler was required to send a force of about 4,000 men to Washington. He wrote to Scott: "This reduction of my forces here leaves it impossible to take up or hold any advanced position. Newport News, where I have an intrenched camp, and a very important point in my judgment, would be in great danger of attack from Yorktown and Warwick, where the Confederates are now concentrating troops across the James river from Smithfield to Warwick."
As soon as Colonel Magruder learned the result of the battle of Manassas, he ordered Colonel Johnston to proceed, with about 2,000 men, to reconnoiter in the immediate vicinity of Hampton and Newport News. As soon as Johnston appeared before Hampton, a large balloon was sent up, from which his force was observed, and a hasty evacuation took place. Magruder ordered a junction of troops from Williamsburg and Yorktown--about 4,000, including 400 cavalry and two batteries of the how-itzers--in Warwick county, where he established a depot of supplies at the courthouse, and then marched to Bethel church. On August 6th he disposed his force between the Federals at and around Fort Monroe and those in garrison at Newport News.
On the morning of the 7th, Magruder displayed his force within a mile and a half of Newport News, with the hope of drawing out the enemy. Disappointed in this, he moved his left flank to within a mile of Hampton, where a copy of the New York Tribune, containing a recent report from Butler to the secretary of war, was placed in his hands, in which the former announced his intentions with respect to Hampton, about one-third of which had been burned by the Federals when they evacuated it in consequence of the withdrawal of 4,000 of their best troops to Washington. Butler, in that report, in substance stated:
That be intended to fortify Hampton and make it so strong as to be easily defended by a small number of troops; that he did not know what to do with the many negroes in his possession unless he possessed Hampton; that they were still coming in rapidly; that as their masters had deserted their homes and slaves, he should consider the latter free, and would colonize them at Hampton, the home of most of their owners, where the women could support themselves by attending to the clothes of the soldiers, and the men by working on the fortifications of the town.
Magruder reported, that having known for some time that Hampton was the harbor of runaway slaves and traitors, and that being under the guns of Fort Monroe it could not be held, even if taken, he was under the impression that it should have been destroyed before; and when he found, from Butler's report, its importance to the enemy, and that the town would lend great strength to the fortifications directly around it, he determined to burn it; that the gentlemen of Hampton, many of whom were in his command, seemed to concur with him in the propriety of this course. He further hoped that the sight of a conflagration would draw away the troops from Newport News at night. Having reached this conclusion, Magruder made disposition of his troops, selecting four Virginia cavalry companies to burn the town, three of them made up of persons from that portion of the country, and many of them from Hampton. To support this party, the Fourteenth Virginia was posted near Hampton to guard against an attack from any unexpected quarter; New Market, between Hampton and Newport News, was taken possession of, and a force disposed so as to meet any troops coming from Newport News to the relief of Hampton. He then described the skirmish at the Hampton bridge, which induced the enemy to retreat, at the end of half an hour, with some loss, and with only one of his men wounded. "Notice was then given to the few remaining inhabitants of the place, and those who were aged or infirm were kindly cared for and taken to their friends, who occupied detached houses. The town was then fired in many places and burned to the ground." About daybreak of the 8th the troops that had fired the town returned to Bethel for rest, not having been molested by the enemy.
General Butler, in his report of this affair, said that just before noon the Confederates attacked his guard at the bridge and attempted to burn it, but were driven back, when they proceeded to fire Hampton, in a great number of places, and by 12 o'clock it was in flames and was soon entirely destroyed. He wrote:
They gave but fifteen minutes' time for the inhabitants to remove from their houses, and I have to-day brought over the old and infirm, who by that wanton act of destruction are now left houseless and homeless. The enemy took away with them most of the able-bodied white men. A more wanton and unnecessary act than the burning, as it seems to me, could not have been committed. There was not the slightest attempt to make any resistance on our part for the possession of the town, which we had before evacuated. There was no attempt to interfere with them there, as we only repelled an attempt to burn the bridge. It would have been easy to dislodge them from the town by a few shells from the fortress, but I did not choose to allow an opportunity to fasten upon the Federal troops any portion of this heathenish outrage.
Magruder reported that there was sickness among the troops on the peninsula, nearly all of a typhoid character, and many deaths were occurring. The Fifth North Carolina, over 1,000 strong, had then less than 400 for duty. "In addition to the measles, ague and fever, bilious and typhoid fever, symptoms of scurvy are apparent throughout the command; typhoid has been so prevalent and fatal at Jamestown island as to make the withdrawal of the men from that post necessary." He added, that he had called out a large force of negroes to complete the fortifications, and he requested that funds be sent for the payment of these laborers, without delay, as many of them were free negroes. He did not wish the sanitary condition of his men to be made known, for obvious reasons, and said:
Those men who can take the field are in fine spirits, and so keen for an encounter with the enemy that I believe Newport News could be carried, though it is excessively strong, and garrisoned by troops and supported by a naval force more than equal to my own in numbers. I do not think it can be done, however, without a loss of one-half of our men in killed and wounded. It could not be held by us for any length of time if it were taken, as the troops from Fort Monroe in much larger force could place themselves in our rear, and the position itself could be shelled by the enemy's ships both in front and on the left flank. Its temporary position, therefore, would not compensate for the loss necessary in taking it.
On the 17th of August, Maj.-Gen. John E. Wool superseded Butler in department command, and Butler was put in command of the volunteer forces in the department exclusive of those at Fort Monroe, practically his own brigade.
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