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June 18, 1861

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The Battle of Bethel Church

            The Richmond papers of Thursday bring us very full and satisfactory accounts of the battle which took place at Great Bethel Church, near Hampton, Va., on Monday last.  The details are highly interesting, and we give the following letter of a correspondent writing from Yorktown on Tuesday:

POSITION OF OUR TROOPS

            The encampment was a parallel formation, the corners of the fortification lying nearly due east and west, north and south, and was protected by embankments thrown up on four sides, the strongest of which was on the southeast side, which commanded the road, the bridge and the field through which troops must pass, coming from Hampton, and was well fortified.  To the defence of this position a howitzer battery of three guns under the command of Maj. Geo. W. Randolph, and four companies of the North Carolina Regiment on the northwest side; the remainder of the North Carolina Regiment were stationed from east to west.  On the south side was a ravine thirty feet deep, and very marshy.  This position was defended by a battery of one howitzer gun, under the command of Captain J. Thompson Brown on the left, and an earthwork and trench made and occupied by the companies of Lieut. Colonel Stewart’s command, consisting of the Virginia Life Guard, Capt. Walker; Henrico Southern Guard, Captain Childrey; and Young Guard, Captain Charters—the remainder of the troops, of infantry and cavalry, were stationed inside the enclosure, and completed the defence of the entire parallel.  All was now in readiness, and with calm, determined countenances, the men awaited their coming.

THE APPROACH

            In a few minutes our scouts and videttes commenced firing and coming in, announcing the advance.  The cannoneers and infantry in the line of fortifications were notified and stood ready, ammunition in hand.  Our men (Col. Stewart’s) were ordered in the trenches, when they were compelled to kneel, in order to conceal our position until the enemy advanced to the middle of the field, and then open fire.  The approach to the fortifications can only be made through a field 600 yards wide, and by the bridge, spanning the creek running along the line southeast of our position.

THE ATTACK

            Our Colonel stood with glass in hand and soon discovered the glistening of bayonets coming from cover of the woods and up the road.  As soon as they had arrived about one thousand yards from us, they planted two cannons in the field, to our left, all of them being guns of heavy caliber.  As soon as they were seen in position, Major Randolph gave the command, and their splendid Parrot gun belched forth a shot which took effect on the column in the road and did considerable damage; this was replied to by the enemy from their gun in the road, and replied to by Capt. Brown’s battery in the field.  The action then became general, and the deafening roar of the guns was all that could be heard for an hour—our shot taking good effect, that of the other side not having hit a single man or gun, all being aimed too high, doing great damage among the boughs of the trees.  Colonel Stewart’s command were placed fifty yards on the right of Captain Brown’s battery, to serve as a protection to them, and we soon saw the approach of a company of Zouaves of a New York Regiment, advancing under cover of some houses, and a large orchard to the right of the field.  The Virginia Life Guard were ordered to rise and shoot them, as our position had not been discovered; the men of the first platoon rose, and taking deliberate aim, fired; the shots had good effect, seven of the Zouaves falling, two killed and remainder wounded, as we ascertained afterwards by finding the bodies of the dead.  We immediately drew upon us the fire of the Zouaves and one piece of cannon; but our men were undaunted, and between every fire of the ____ ____ they rose by file and fired.  Nearly every ____ ____was felled.  Our guns being the Enfield rifled gun, were very effective.  The entire force of both sides [unreadable phrase] and to men accustomed to such guns, the rifle was sublime.  After the first fire all the hesitating and trepidation incident to the first battle was over, and every man felt eager to give them a salute.  There was a cessation of firing for five minutes, when our guns commenced again, and constant and rapid firing we kept up for one hour more, our guns working beautifully and doing great damage.  The fire of the enemy wounded three of our howitzer and one of the North Carolina Regiment men.

            During this engagement the howitzer ____ ____ field; was accidentally disabled by the breaking of the front wire to the ____ hole, and had to be carted in the woods and abandoned, and Colonel Stewart’s command was ordered to close in upon the fortifications, and defend the interior of our camp as we moved off.  A regiment of infantry was seen to fill up the road to the south of our postings, in order to get in our rear, and several cannons were ordered to the road through which they must pass.  The cannons were supported by the commands of Col. Stewart and Capt. Montague; but they did not make their appearance and we remained interested spectators of the third attack, holding our position in the trenches, and prepared to defend the ravine and the road to the south and west of our fortifications.

            This attack was made a few minutes after twelve o’clock, and was the most severe of all the day’s work.  Our guns commenced again, and after exchanging shots for fifteen or twenty minutes the enemy formed in column, one thousand strong, and under command of a brave looking General well-mounted, advanced over the road, over the bridge and up to the embankment, on the southeast.  Every man looked on with breathless interest, as the charge was a brilliant one.  As soon as they were in good range, our battery opened and the first fire struck the head of the advancing column, and crashed through from rank to rank.  They attempted to mount the embankment, but our infantry rose, and they were repulsed with great loss, and so discomfited that they retired with a double quick movement down the road.  The Colonel commanding in this charge was seen to ____ in his saddle.  The battery again exchanged shots, and the action closed with six men wounded on their side.

            It was now one o’clock, and the enemy showing no disposition to commence again, the dragoons were ordered out, and found the enemy retreating with all speed toward Hampton.  As they pursued them, they scattered like sheep, and the wounded and dying fell on every side of the road.  It was a pitiable sight, and as our men came back they were picked up and carried on litters to our camp and cared for.

            The battle was now over, having commenced at 9 ˝ o’clock A. M. and continued until 1 P. M.   One of the wounded of the enemy said he would tell the truth before he died, and say four thousand five hundred were engaged on the part of the Federal troops, and five hundred held in reserve; and the dead and wounded were two hundred, while on our part there were only twelve hundred men, and at no time were there more than eight hundred engaged.

            The force of the enemy brought against us was 4000, according to the statement of the six prisoners we took.  Ours was 1100.  Their loss in killed and wounded must be nearly 200.  Our loss is one killed and three wounded.  The fatal loss was that of a North Carolinian who volunteered to ___ one of the houses behind which they were stationed.  He started from the breastwork to accomplish it, but was shot in the head.  He died this morning at the hospital.  The wounded are Harry Snook, of Richmond, of Brown’s Battery, shot in the wrist; John Worth, of Richmond, of the same battery, shot in the leg, and Lieut. Hudson, of the same battery, shot in the foot.  None of the wounds are serious.

            The Louisiana Regiment arrived about an hour after the fight was over.  They are a fine looking lot of fellows.

            As there was force enough at Old Point to send up to Bethel and surround us, we took up the line of march and came to Yorktown, where we now are.

ANOTHER ACCOUNT

            About nine o’clock the glittering bayonets of the enemy appeared on the hill opposite, and above them waved the Star Spangled Banner.  The moment the head of the column advanced far enough to show one or two companies, the Parrot gun of the Howitzer Battery opened on them, throwing a shell right into their midst.  Their ranks broke in confusion, and the column, or as much of it as we could see, retreated behind two small farm houses.  From their position a fire was opened on us, which was replied to by our battery, which commanded the route of their approach.  Our firing was excellent, and the shells scattered in all directions when they burst.  They could hardly approach the guns which they were firing for the shells which came from our battery.  Within our encampment fell a perlee? in a storm of cannon shot, bullets and balls.  Remarkable to say not one of our men was killed in all of our encampment.  Several horses were slain by the shells and bullets.

            Finding that bombardment would not waiver, the enemy, about 11 o’clock, tried to carry the position by assault, but met a terrible repulse at the hands of the infantry as he tried to scale the breast works.  The men disregarded ____ line defence erected for them, and leaping on the embankment, stood and fired at the Yankees, cutting them down as they came up.  One company of the New York 7th Regiment, under Capt. Garthrop, or Winthrop, attempted to take the redoubt on the left.  The marsh they crossed was strewn with their bodies.  Their Captain, a fine looking man, reached the fence, and leaping on a log, waved his sword, crying, “Come on boys; one charge and the day is over.”  The words were his last, for a Cadet in ____ ended his life the next moment, and his men had to turn back.  At the redoubt on the right a company of about 800 New York Zouaves charged one of our guns, but could not stand the fire of the artillery and retreated precipitately.

            During these charges the main body of the enemy, on the hill, were attempting to concentrate for a general assault, but the shell from the Howitzer battery prevented them.  As one regiment would give up the effort, another would be marched to the position, but with no better success, for a shell would scatter them like chaff.  The men did not seem able to stand fire at all.

           

            About 1 o’clock their guns were silenced, and a few moments after their infantry retreated precipitately down the road to Hampton.

            Our cavalry, numbering three companies, went in pursuit, and harassed them down to the edge of Hampton.  As they retreated, many of the wounded fell along the road and died, and the whole road to Hampton was strewn with haversacks, overcoats, canteens, muskets, etc., which the men had thrown off in their retreat.

            After the battle I visited the position they held.  The houses behind which they had been hid had been burnt by our troops.  Around the yard were the dead bodies of the men who had been killed by our cannon, mangled in the most frightening manner by the shells.  The uniforms on the bodies were very different, and many of them are like the Virginia soldiery.  A little further on we came to the point to which they had carried some of the wounded, who had since died.  The gay looking uniforms of the New York Zouaves contrasted greatly with the paled, fixed faces of their owners.  Going to the swamp through which they attempted to pass to assault our lines, presented another bloody scene.  Bodies dotted the black morass from one end to the other.  I saw the boyish, delicate looking fellow lying on the mud, with a bullet hole through his breast.  His hand was pressed on the wound from which his life blood had poured, and the other was clenched in the grass that grew near him.  Lying on the ground was a Testament which had fallen from his pocket, dabbed with blood.  On opening the cover I found the printed inscription “Presented to the defenders of their Country, by the New York Bible Society.”  A U. S. flag was also stamped on the title page.

            Among the haversacks picked up along the route were many letters from the Northern States, asking if they liked the Southern farms, and if the Southern barbarians had been whipped out yet.

INCIDENT OF THE BATTLE

            The enemy, when they first approached, tried to keep up their courage by repeated cheering, yelling like so many savages, which the writer of this heard distinctly, while our men said not a word, but with uplifted hearts to the God of Battles, stood silent and courageously, awaiting them.

            One of the captains of the advancing column of the enemy, approached near the North Carolina Regiment’s line, and, standing on a log, cheered his men.  He was seen, and a private in one of the companies took deliberate aim, and he fell dead.  The man ran out and secured his sword as a trophy of his valor.

            I went over the field after the fight.  The sight was sickening.  Here lay the body of a Zouave, the blood still gushing from its wound; a little further, the body of one of some other regiment, with his musket in his clenched hand; and all about lay the dead, with their eyes glazed and fixed.

            During the entire engagement, Col. Magruder was in every part of the field, and displayed consummate generalship and courage, directing every movement in person and exposing himself with a recklessness of danger which was seen and admired by all in camp.

            One of our corps picked up, on the field of battle, a memorandum book, belonging to one R. M. Parker, private in the 2d company, 1st Regiment Vermont Volunteers, in which I find the following entry:

            “June 5th—Harriet Lane demolished the battery opposite.  Six Massachusetts privates shot accidentally—carelessness in an attack.  Eight hundred more troops arrived from New York.  H. Lane was struck—25 on board wounded.”

            So, there is the truth about Pig Point.  We have punished the Yankees awfully, depend upon it, in every battle we have yet had with them.   

 

[Transcribed by Sharon Strout]

 

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