Prior to today, deaths have been few in the nearly two month Civil War yet void of significant battles. Among soldiery and the general public of both sides, the war is broadly viewed as a chivalrous endeavor that will soon be over. Prospects of massive death and destruction are not anticipated by many Americans.
A group of green Confederate soldiers numbering about 1,200 are camped near the Big Bethel Baptist Church at Brick Kiln Creek near Hampton, Virginia. For several days, they have been harassing Union pickets and patrols operating out of nearby Fort Monroe. Annoyed, Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler, in command of Fort Monroe, devises a plan to strike back.
Union forces, in two separate columns comprised of about 3,500 men, approach unprepared Confederate forces at dawn in what they hope will be a surprise attack. Yet demonstrating the lack of army cohesion and discipline characteristic of the early months of the war, the Union columns fail to communicate effectively. The element of surprise is lost when confused Union forces engage in friendly fire in the darkness, and the attack goes awry as the Confederates mount stiff resistance. Some of the confusion among Union soldiers is the result of unmatched uniforms that are mistaken for Confederate garb, leading to intermittent friendly fire, uncoordinated troop maneuvers, and unnecessary pull backs of troops in the midst of the Battle of Big Bethel.
Haphazard fighting thus takes place for a few hours in what is one of the earliest land battles in Virginia, and – according to some accounts – the first significant land battle of the war.
The fighting soon turns into an artillery duel – until the lone Confederate canon breaks. The Union general, Ebenezer W. Pierce, tiring of the fight and wanting to return home for lunch, calls off the Union attack and leads his men from the battlefield. Victory thus goes to the Confederates, who lose a total of one man in the battle. Henry Lawson Wyatt for some years is considered the first Confederate to die in battle, although latter it is acknowledged that at least one Confederate soldier had died in a prior skirmish. On the Union side, 18 soldiers die from the day’s fighting.
Whether significant battle or farce, the Battle at Big Bethel Baptist Church in Virginia in the coming days makes headlines North and South, and is celebrated throughout the South. Yet the battle also demonstrates the lack of professionalism of Confederate and Union armies. In addition, the church building is severely damaged in the day’s fighting.