Report of Col. D. H. Hill, First North Carolina Infantry.
Engagement at Big Bethel, or Bethel Church, Va.
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 2 [S# 2] -- CHAPTER IX.
Col. J. B. MAGRUDER,
Commander York Line.
SIR: I have the honor to report that, in obedience to orders from the colonel commanding, I marched on the 6th instant, with my regiment and four pieces of Major Randolph's battery, from Yorktown, on the Hampton road, to Bethel Church, nine miles from Hampton. We reached there after dark on a wet night, and slept without tents. Early on the morning of the 7th I made a reconnaissance of the ground, preparatory to fortifying. I found a branch of Back River on our front, and encircling our right flank. On our left was a dense and almost impassable wood, except about one hundred and fifty yards of old field. The breadth of the road, a thick wood, and narrow cultivated field covered our rear. The nature of the ground determined me to make an inclosed work, and I had the invaluable aid of Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, of my regiment, in its plan and construction. Our position had the inherent defect of being commanded by an immense field immediately in front of it, upon which the masses of the enemy might be readily deployed. Presuming that an attempt would be made to carry the bridge across the stream, a battery was made for its especial protection, and Major Randolph placed his guns so as to sweep all the approaches to it. The occupation of two commanding eminences beyond the creek and on our right would have greatly strengthened our position, but our force was too weak to admit of the occupation of more than one of them. A battery was laid out on it for one of Randolph's howitzers. We had only twenty-five spades, six axes, and three picks, but these were busily plied all day and night of the, 7th and all day on the 8th. On the afternoon of the 8th I learned that a marauding party of the enemy was within a few miles of us. I called for a party of thirty-four men to drive them back. Lieutenant Roberts, of Company F, of my regiment, promptly responded, and in five minutes his command was en route. I detached Major Randolph with one howitzer to join them, and Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, First Regiment North Carolina Volunteers, requested and was granted permission to take command of the whole. After a march of five miles they came across the marauders busy over the spoils of a plundered house. A shell soon put the plunderers to flight, and they were chased over New Market Bridge, where our little force was halted, in consequence of the presence of a considerable body situated on the other side. Lieutenant-Colonel Lee brought in one prisoner. How many of the enemy were killed and wounded is not known. None of our command was hurt. Soon after Lieutenant-Colonel Lee left a citizen came dashing in with the information that seventy-five marauders were on the Back River road. I called for Captain McDowell's company (E), of the First Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers, and in three minutes it was in hot pursuit. Lieutenant West, of the Howitzer Battalion, with one piece, was detached to join them, and Major Lane, of my regiment, volunteered to assume command of the whole. After a weary march they encountered, dispersed, and chased the wretches over the New Market Bridge--this being the second race on the same day over the New Market course, in both of which the Yankees reached the goal first. Major Lane brought in one prisoner. Reliable citizens reported that two cart loads and one buggy lead of wounded were taken into Hampton. We had not a single man killed or wounded. Colonel Magruder came up that evening and assumed command.
On Sunday, the 9th, a fresh supply of tools enabled us to put more men to work, and, when not engaged in religious duties, the men worked vigorously on the intrenchments. We were aroused at 3 o'clock on Monday morning for a general advance upon the enemy, and marched three and a half miles, when we learned that the foe, in large force, was within a few hundred yards of us. We fell back hastily upon our intrenchments, and awaited the arrival of our invaders. Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart, of the Third [Fifteenth] Virginia Regiment, having come with some one hundred and eighty men, was stationed on the hill on the extreme right, beyond the creek, and Company G, of my regiment, was also thrown over the stream to protect the howitzer under Captain Brown. Captain Bridgers, of Company A, First North Carolina Regiment, took post in the dense woods beyond and to the left of the road. Major Montague, with three companies of his battalion, was ordered Up from the rear, and took post on our right, beginning at the church and extending along the entire front on that side. This fine body of men and the gallant command of Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart worked with great rapidity, and in an hour had constructed temporary shelters against the enemy's fire. Just at 9 o'clock a.m. the heavy columns of the enemy were seen approaching rapidly and in good order, but when Randolph opened upon them at 9.15 their organization was completely broken up. The enemy promptly replied with his artillery, firing briskly but wildly. He made an attempt at deployment on our right of the road, under cover of some houses and a paling. He was, however, promptly driven back by our artillery, a Virginia company--the Life Guards--and Companies B and G of my regiment. The enemy attempted no deployment within musketry range during the day, except under cover of woods, fences, or paling. Under cover of the trees he moved a strong column to an old ford, some three-quarters of a mile below, where I had placed a picket of some forty men. Colonel Magruder sent Captain Werth's company, of Montague's command, with one howitzer, under Sergeant Crane, to drive back this column, which was done by a single shot from the howitzer. Before this a priming wire had been broken in the vent of the howitzer commanded by Captain Brown, and rendered it useless.
A force estimated at one thousand five hundred was now attempting to outflank us and get in the rear of Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart's small command. He was accordingly directed to fall back, and the whole of our advanced troops were withdrawn. At this critical moment I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Lee to call Captain Bridgers out of the swamp, and ordered him to reoccupy the nearest advanced work, and I ordered Captain Ross, Company C, First Regiment North Carolina Volunteers, to the support of Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart. These two captains, with their companies, crossed over to Randolph's battery, under a most heavy fire, in a most gallant manner. As Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart had withdrawn, Captain Ross was detained at the church, near Randolph's battery. Captain Bridgers, however, crossed over and drove the zouaves out of the advanced howitzer battery, and reoccupied it. It is impossible to overestimate this service. It decided the action in our favor.
In obedience to orders from Colonel Magruder, Lieutenants Colonel Stuart marched back, and, in spite of the presence of a foe ten times his superior in number, resumed in the most heroic manner possession of his intrenchments. A fresh howitzer was carried across and placed in the battery, and Captain Avery, of Company G, was directed to defend it at all hazards.
We were now as secure as at the beginning of the fight, and as yet had no man killed. The enemy, finding himself foiled on our right flank, next made his final demonstration on our left. A strong column, supposed to consist of volunteers from different regiments, and under command of Captain Winthrop, aide-decamp to General Butler, crossed over the creek and appeared at the angle on our left. Those in advance had put on our distinctive badge of a white band around the cap, and they cried out repeatedly, "Don't fire." This ruse was practiced to enable the Whole column to get over the creek and form in good order. They now began to cheer most lustily, thinking that our work was open at the gorge, and that they could get in by a sudden rush. Companies B and C, however, dispelled the illusion by a cool, deliberate, and well-directed fire. Colonel Magruder sent over portions of Companies G, C, and H of my regiment to our support, and now began as cool firing on our side as was ever witnessed.
The three field officers of the regiment were present, and but few shots were fired without their permission, the men repeatedly saying, "May I fire?" "I think I can bring him." They were all in high glee, and seemed to enjoy it as much as boys do rabbit-shooting. Captain Winthrop, while most gallantly urging on his men, was shot through the heart, when all rushed back with the utmost precipitation. So far as my observation extended he was the only one of the enemy who exhibited even an approximation to courage during the whole day.
The fight at the angle lasted but 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 outhouses 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 he had left sharpshooters behind him in the woods on our left, the dragoons could not advance until Captain Hoke, of Company K, First North Carolina Volunteers, had thoroughly explored them. As soon as he gave the assurance of the road being clear, Captain Douthatt, with some one hundred dragoons, in compliance with Colonel Magruder's orders, pursued. The enemy in his haste threw away hundreds of canteens, haversacks, overcoats, &c.; even the dead were thrown out of the wagons. The pursuit soon became a chase, and for the third time the enemy won the race over the New Market course. The bridge was torn up behind him and our dragoons returned to camp. There were not quite eight hundred of my regiment engaged in the fight, and not one-half of these drew trigger during the day. All remained manfully at the posts assigned them, and not a man in the regiment behaved badly. The companies not engaged were as much exposed and rendered equal service with those participating in the fight. They deserve equally the thanks of the country. In fact, it is the most trying ordeal to which soldiers can be subjected, to receive a fire which their orders forbid them to return. Had a single company left its post our works would have been exposed; and the constancy and discipline of the unengaged companies cannot be too highly commended. A detachment of fifteen cadets from the North Carolina Military Institute defended the howitzer under Lieutenant Hudnall, and acted with great coolness and determination.
I cannot speak in too high terms of my two field officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Lee and Major Lane. Their services have been of the highest importance since taking the field to the present moment. My thanks,-too, are due, in an especial manner, to Lieut. J. M. Poteat, adjutant, and Lieut. J. W. Ratchford, aide, both of them cadets of the North Carolina Institute at Charlotte. The latter received a contusion in the forehead from a grape shot, which nearly cost him his life. Captain Bridgers' company, A; Lieutenant Owens, commanding Company B; Captain Ross, Company C; Captain Ashe, Company D; Captain McDowell, Company E; Captain Starr, Company F; Captain Avery, Company G; Captain Huske, Company H; Lieutenant Whittaker, commanding Company I; Captain Hoke, Company K, displayed great coolness, judgment, and efficiency. Lieutenant Gregory is highly spoken of by Major Lane for soldierly bearing on the 8th. Lieutenants Cook and McKethan, Company H, crossed over under a heavy fire to the assistance of the troops attacked on the left. So did Lieutenant Cohen, Company C. Lieutenant Hoke has shown great zeal, energy, and judgment as an engineer officer on various occasions.
Corporal George Williams, Privates Henry L. Wyatt, Thomas Fallan, and John Thorpe, Company A, volunteered to burn the house which concealed the enemy. They behaved with great gallantry. Wyatt was killed and the other three were recalled.
Sergeant Thomas J. Stewart and Private William McDowell, Company A, reconnoitered the position of the enemy, and went far in advance of our troops. Private J. W. Potts, of Company B, is specially mentioned by his company commander; so are Sergeant William Elmo, Company C; Sergeants C. L. Watts, W. H. McDade, Company D; Sergeant J. M. Young, Corporal John Dingler, Privates G. H. A. Adams, R. V. Gudger, G. W. Werley, John C. Wright, T. Y. Little, J. F. Jenkins, Company E; R. W. Stedman, M. E. Dye, H. E. Benton, J. B. Smith, Company F; G. W. Buhmann, James C. McRae, Company H.
Casualties.--Private Henry L. Wyatt, Company K, mortally wounded; Lieut. J. W. Ratchford, contusion; Private Council Rodgers, Company H, severely wounded; Private Charles Williams, Company H, severely wounded; Private S. Patterson, Company D, slightly wounded: Private William White, Company K, wounded; Private Peter Poteat, Company G, slightly wounded.
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. The left howitzer, under Lieutenant Hudnall; being nearest my works, came under my special notice. Their names are as follows:
Lieutenant Hudnall, commanding (wounded), Sergeant S. B. Hughes, G. H. Pendleton, R. P. Pleasants, William M. Caldwell, George W. Hobson, William McCarthy, H. C. Shook (wounded), L. W. Timberlake, George P. Hughes, John Worth (wounded), D. B. Clark.
Permit me, in conclusion, to pay a well-deserved compliment to the First Regiment North Carolina Volunteers. Their patience under trial, perseverance under toil, and courage under fire have seldom been surpassed by veteran troops. Often working night and day--sometimes without tents and cooking utensils--a murmur has never escaped them to my knowledge. They have done a large portion of the work on the intrenchments at Yorktown, as well as those at Bethel. Had all of the regiments in the field worked with the same spirit, there would not be an assailable point in Virginia. 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.
The Confederates had in all about one thousand two hundred men in the action. The enemy had the regiments of Colonel Duryea (zouaves), Colonel Carr, Colonel Allen, Colonel Bendix, and Colonel Wardrop (Massachusetts), from Old Point Comfort, and five companies of Phelps' regiment, from Newport News. We had never more than three hundred actively engaged at any one time. The Confederate loss was eleven wounded; of these, one mortally. The enemy must have lost some three hundred. I could not, without great disparagement of their courage, place their loss at a lower figure. It is inconceivable that five thousand men should make so precipitate a retreat without having sustained at least this much of a reverse.
Let us devoutly thank the living God for His wonderful interposition in our favor, and evince our gratitude by the exemplariness of our lives.
With great respect,
D. H. HILL,
Colonel First Regiment North Carolina Volunteers.
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