Report of Brig. Gen. E. W. Pierce, Massachusetts Militia.
Engagement at Big Bethel, or Bethel Church, Va.
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 2 [S# 2] -- CHAPTER IX.
June 12, 1861.
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
Major-General, Commanding Department of Virginia
SIR: Sunday forenoon, June 9, 186l, I received an order requiring my attendance at your headquarters forthwith, where I arrived at about 11 o'clock, and found you and Colonel Duryea, of my command, consulting upon a plan of proposed attack upon places known as Big Bethel and Little Bethel, and received from Captain Butler, of your staff, the following plan of operations:
A regiment or battalion to march from Camp Hamilton (Duryea's), each to be supported by sufficient reserves, under arms in camp and in advance guard out in the line of march. Duryea to push out two pickets at l0 p.m., one also two and a half miles beyond Hampton, on the county road, but not so far as to alarm the enemy. This is important. Second picket half as far as the first; both pickets as much out of sight as possible. No one, whomsoever, to be allowed to pass out through their lines. Persons to be allowed to pass inwards, unless it appeared they intend to go around about and dodge through the point. At 12 o'clock p.m. (midnight) Colonel Duryea will march his regiment, with twenty rounds cartridges, in the county road toward Little Bethel; scows to be provided to ferry them across Hampton Creek.
March to be rapid, but not hurried.
A howitzer, with canister and shrapnel, to go, and a wagon with planks and materials to repair New Market Bridge. Duryea to have the 200 rifles; he will pick the men to whom they are intrusted. Rockets to be thrown up from Newport News. Notify Commodore Pendergrast of this, to prevent general alarm. Newport News movement to be made somewhat later, as the distance is somewhat less. If we find the enemy and surprise them, we will fire a volley if desirable, not reload, and go ahead with the bayonet. As the attack is to be made at night, or the gray of the morning, and in two detachments, our people should have some token, say a white rag, or nearest approach to white attainable, on the left arm. Perhaps the detachments who are engaged in the expedition should be smaller than a regiment.
If we capture the Little Bethel men, push on to Big Bethel and similarly capture them. Burn up both the Bethels. Blow up, if brick. To protect our rear in case we take either field pieces, and the enemy should march the main body, if there are any, to recover them, it would be well to have a party of competent artillerists, regular or otherwise, to handle the captured guns on the retirement of our main body; also spikes to Spike them. George Scott is to have a revolver. And in pursuance of these orders is issued the following order early Sunday evening:
GENERAL ORDERS, No. 12.
HEADQUARTERS CAMP HAMILTON,
June 9, 1861.
A plan of attack to-night is herewith inclosed and forwarded to Colonel Duryea, commanding Fifth Regiment of New York State Volunteers, who will act accordingly. Colonel Townsend, commanding Third Regiment of New York State Volunteers, will march his command in support of Colonel Duryea. Colonel Carr, commanding the Second Regiment New York State Volunteers, will detach the artillery company of his regiment with their field pieces, and take their position at the burned bridge, near Hampton. Colonels Allen, Czar, and McChesney will hold their entire command in readiness, fully prepared to march at a moment's notice. All the troops will be supplied with one days rations, and each man with twenty rounds of ball cartridges; and, that no mistake may be made, all the troops, as they charge, will shout "Boston."
Colonels Allen, Carr, Townsend, Duryea, and McChesney will govern themselves accordingly.
By command of Brig. Gen. E. W. Pierce:
R. A. PIERCE,
And, in compliance with this order, Colonel Duryea sent out two pickets at 10 o'clock p.m., two and one-half miles beyond Hampton, on the county road, with orders to keep out of sight as much as possible, allowing persons to pass in, but none to pass out. At twenty minutes past 12 o'clock (midnight) Colonel Duryea passed the remainder of his command over the river at Hampton, and pushed on for Little Bethel, having now upon that side of the river some 850 men. He was followed about two hours after by the Third Regiment New York State Volunteers, Colonel Townsend, with 650 men, and a detachment from Colonel Carr's regiment, with two mountain howitzers, under the direction of a non-commissioned officer and four privates of the U.S. Army, accompanied by myself, with an aide-de-camp; and we had proceeded on about four miles, having taken the precaution to keep a mounted officer considerably in advance to reconnoiter the road until we had reached New Market Bridge, where we came up with a considerable number of Colonel Duryea's men, who were left to guard the bridge. Passing on myself, with aide-de-camp still being considerably in advance, we discovered a large body of armed men by the roadside, who appeared to be emerging from the woods and taking up their position on the road, and, believing them to be friends, we were passing on, when we suddenly discovered that they were occupying the road with a field piece, just ready to open fire upon us, and we were immediately saluted by a volley from their small-arms and a discharge from their field piece, quickly followed by an indiscriminate fire from Colonel Townsend's regiment. I rode back, ordered them to cease firing, charge bayonets, and shout Boston. Colonel Townsend's men fell to the right and left of the road in confusion, but in a few minutes rallied and reformed, by directions of myself and Colonel Townsend, under a very heavy fire. I then ordered the column to withdraw to a position about one-half a mile back across the bridge, on rising ground, where they could sustain themselves, destroying the bridge as we passed. This movement I caused to be made, hoping to draw the supposed enemy from their positions, and also to await re-enforcements, which I had sent for, from Hampton. When we found the supposed enemy advancing, I threw out skirmishers, who, to my surprise, I soon found uniting themselves with the supposed enemy, who in a few minutes proved to be friends, and a portion of the forces from Newport News, commanded by Colonel Bendix. The result of this fire upon us was, 2 mortally wounded (1 since dead); 3 dangerously; 4 officers and 12 privates slightly; making a total, 21.
Leaving the rest to collect the wounded and refresh the tired men, I had an interview with the commanding officers present--Colonels Townsend, Duryea, and Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn--and was strongly advised by Duryea and Washburn not to proceed, as the enemy, being now warned of our approach, would gain strength from Yorktown, and that the original design of surprise had now become fully frustrated. I decided that it was my duty to follow my written instructions, and in this decision was sustained by Major Winthrop and Captain Haggerty, your aides-de-camp.
In answer to the remonstrance of Colonel Duryea and Washburn, that re-enforcements would come from Yorktown, I replied that we had already sent for re-enforcements from Camp Hamilton, and I hoped that ours at least might equal theirs. We then marched on, being joined by the forces from Newport News; and in reply to the question from Colonel Washburn, how are we to proceed, I said, follow the original design of General Butler to the extent of our several abilities.
Soon after arrived at Little Bethel. That we burned, finding no resistance and halted the column, bringing the artillery to the front. We soon after obtained the testimony of a woman at a farm-house that Big Bethel was garrisoned by some 4,000 men, and from a negro obtained substantially a like information. When we arrived within a mile of County Bridge the column halted, and Captains Kilpatrick and Bartlett having discovered that the enemy were holding a strong position in battery at the head of the road, we now drew up in line of battle at the skirts of the wood, the artillery and howitzers being pushed some thirty rods up the road. Captains Winslow, Bartlett, and Kilpatrick having been ordered to advance as skirmishers, the regiment of Colonel Duryea was by my orders moved out to the right of the main road, the right flank resting behind a dense wood which skirted the road, where it remained in line of battle in an open field about 800 paces from the battery.
The forces from Newport News were brought into a second line of battle in the field to the left of the road, and were soon after moved by a flank so as to cross the road to cover the front, then being vacated by the Fifth Regiment, now being marched by a flank through and covered by the woods on the right, the Fifth Regiment being supported on the right by the forces from Newport News. The latter, being marched through the woods for that purpose, made several attempts to charge the batteries, but were prevented by creek. Meanwhile the artillery in the road was operated by the directions of Lieutenant Greble, who lost his life just at the close of the action.
While this was being done on the right, I directed Colonel Townsend, with his regiment, to advance and take a position in a lane at right angles to the main road leading to the battery, where he was directed to send out skirmishers to ascertain the strength of the enemy's right, and for that purpose detailed Captains John G. Butler and Edwin S. Jenny, with their companies, to cross the field immediately, and to so skirmish as to draw the enemy's fire, which was gallantly performed. The enemy's fire was delivered vigorously. Colonel Townsend now moved his regiment up to the point where the skirmishers were engaged--a movement which the regiment performed in line of battle as if on parade, in the face of a severe fire of artillery and small-arms, in a manner entirely satisfactory--and were joined by about one hundred of the Fifth Regiment as skirmishers on the right of Colonel Townsend's command.
By the time Colonel Townsend's regiment had arrived at its position it became apparent that the battery had been strongly re-enforced, and that any effort to take it was useless. Besides, a company of that regiment had been separated from the regiment by a thickly-hedged ditch, and as the regiment moved forward towards the skirmishers this company marched into the adjoining field in a line with the regiment. This was not known to Colonel Townsend, who supposed, when the regiment approached, that it was the entire regiment. Consequently, upon seeing among the breaks in the hedges the glistening of bayonets in the adjoining field, [he] immediately concluded that the enemy were outflanking him, [and] conceived it to be his duty to retire and repel their advance, when by his order his regiment resumed their original position. Shortly after I directed all the forces to retire.
Colonel Duryea having said that his men were tired out, completely exhausted, and that they must be taken to the rear, Colonel Allen, of the First New York Regiment, advancing at this time, I immediately directed him to throw his regiment into the lane to the left of the main road leading to the battery, and the Second Regiment, Colonel Carr commanding, were by order promptly formed in line of battle, covering the ground lately occupied by the Fifth Regiment, with their field pieces, upon the left. I then ordered the killed and wounded picked up placed in whatever vehicle could be procured for their conveyance, the regiments of Colonels Allen and Carr mean while keeping the enemy at bay. On the retreat the regiment of Colonel Duryea led the column, followed by that of Colonel Townsend and the forces from Newport News, the regiments of Colonels Allen and Carr forming the rear guard of the retreating column. Some difficulty was experienced in keeping the men in proper order during the retreat, the men being so exhausted by thirst as to rush out of the ranks wherever water was to be had.
For killed, wounded, and missing please refer to my former report.
In closing this report, I wish to bear my testimony to the gallant and soldierlike conduct of Colonel Townsend, who was indefatigable in encouraging his men and leading them in the hottest scenes of the action. I also desire to acknowledge the valuable service rendered me by the lamented Major Winthrop and Captain Haggerty, of your staff, in carrying orders to posts of exposure and danger. Colonel Carr, in covering the retreat, showed himself a good soldier, ready and willing to do his duty. In the death of Lieutenant Greble, of U.S. Army, who bravely fell at his gun, I recognize the loss of an able and gallant officer, whose conduct in the battle is deserving of all praise, and whose memory should be perpetuated by a grateful country.
EBENEZER W. PIERCE,
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