Report of Col. Frederick Townsend, Third New York Infantry.
Engagement at Big Bethel, or Bethel Church, Va.
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 2 [S# 2] -- CHAPTER IX.
HDQRS. THIRD REGIMENT N.Y. VOLUNTEERS,
June 12, 1861.
Maj. R. A. PEIRCE,
Brigade Inspector, &c.
SIR: I have the honor to report, for the information of Brigadier-General Pierce, that on the evening of Sunday, June 9, I received orders from him to have my command in readiness, with one day's rations, to move that night, to form part of a column composed of two regiments from Newport News and Colonel Duryea's and my own, intended to make a reconnaissance in force towards Yorktown. In obedience to these orders, with the concerted sign of a white badge upon our left arms, at midnight I marched my regiment to Hampton, where the general met the command and accompanied it.
On approaching a defile through a thick wood, about five or six miles from Hampton, a heavy and well-sustained fire of canister and small-arms was opened upon the regiment while it was marching in a narrow road upon the flank, in route step, and wholly unsuspicious of an enemy, inasmuch as we were ordered to re-enforce Colonel Duryea, who had preceded us by some two hours, and who had been ordered to throw out as he marched an advance guard two and a half miles from his regiment and a sustaining force half way between the advance and the regiment; therefore, had Colonel Duryea been obliged to retreat upon us before we reached his locality, we should have heard distant firing or some of his regiment would have been seen retreating. The force which fired upon us was subsequently ascertained to be only the regiment of Colonel Bendix, though a portion of the Vermont and Fourth Massachusetts regiments were with it, having come down with two 6-pounder field pieces from Newport News to join the column. These regiments took up a masked position in the woods at the commencement of the defile. The result of the fire upon us was, two mortally wounded (one since dead), three dangerously, and four officers and twelve privates slightly, making a total of twenty-one.
At the commencement of the fire the general, Captain Chamberlain, his aide-de-camp, and two mountain howitzers, were about two hundred and fifty paces in advance of the regiment. The fire was opened upon them first by a discharge from small-arms, and immediately followed by a rapidly-sustained volley upon my regiment and the field pieces. My men then generally discharged their pieces and jumped to the right and left of the road, and recommenced loading and firing. In a few minutes the regiment was reformed in the midst of this heavy fire, and by the general's directions retired in a thoroughly military manner, in order to withdraw the supposed enemy from his position.
On ascertaining that the enemy were our friends, and providing for the wounded, we joined Colonel Duryea and Colonel Bendix, the former having returned, and proceeded on the reconnaissance at Big Bethel. Some seven or more miles on we found the enemy in force, well fortified, with a battery, said to be of twenty guns, in position, some of them rifle cannon. The information relative to the guns in position at the Bethel battery was given to me on the ground by Colonel Duryea, who informed me that he received it from a reconnoitering officer whom he had sent to the front to ascertain the position of things. On arriving at this point, in order to feel the enemy, battle was immediately given by the orders of the general. We were ordered to take up a position in a field about eight hundred paces from the battery. I was then directed by the general to advance to a position in a road at right angles to the main road leading to the battery, and about two hundred paces from it, on the left of Colonel Duryea. I was then directed to send out skirmishers to ascertain the strength of the enemy's right, for which purpose I detailed Capts. John G. Butler and Edwin S. Jenny, with their companies, to cross the field immediately in front of the right of the battery, and so to skirmish as to draw the enemy's fire, which duty they gallantly performed. The enemy's fire was delivered vigorously almost immediately upon these companies entering the field. On crossing it myself, and considering that there might be a possibility of our capturing the battery, I moved the regiment up to the point where our skirmished were engaged--a movement which the regiment performed in line of battle as if on parade, in face of a severe fire of artillery and small-arms, and in a manner entirely to my satisfaction.
By the time the regiment had arrived at its position it became evident that the right portion of the battery had been strongly re-enforced by men from the enemy's left, and that an effort to take the battery then was useless; besides, a company of my regiment had been separated from the regiment by a thickly-hedged ditch, and as the regiment moved forward toward the skirmishers, this company marched in the adjoining field on a line with the regiment.
This was not known to me until after the engagement. I supposed when the regiment approached that it was the entire regiment. Consequently, upon seeing among the breaks in the hedge the glistening of bayonets in the adjoining field, I immediately concluded that the enemy were outflanking us, and conceived it to be my duty immediately to retire and repel that advance. I resumed, therefore, my original position on the left of Colonel Duryea. Shortly after all the forces were directed to retire, the design of the reconnaissance having been accomplished.
I of course forbear speaking of the movements of other corps, excepting as immediately connected with my regiment, and it were especially gratuitous, inasmuch as the general was upon the field and directed the movements of the various commands in person.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Colonel Third Regiment.
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