The first battle of the Civil War, Big Bethel was a classic example of the hazards awaiting untrained troops attempting to take offensive action. The first of many defeats of Union Major General Benjamin Butler in the War, Big Bethel started off the War in the East with a humiliating little defeat for the Union, an ominous portent of things to come over the next four years.
Placed in charge of Fortress Monroe on the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula on May 23, 1861, Butler began operations to extend Union control into areas near Monroe. On the night of June 9-10, Butler ordered 3500 Union troops in two columns marching from Hampton and Newport News, to perform a night march, and launch a surprise attack on Confederate positions at Little Bethel and Big Bethel. Butler’s plan would have tasked the abilities of well-trained veteran troops, as a coordinated surprise attack by converging columns after a night march is the military equivalent of brain surgery. Expecting the raw troops he commanded to carry this out was simply absurd and an invitation to disaster.
The disaster ensued. A friendly fire incident between the two columns gave the Confederates ample warning of the attack. The 1200 Confederates easily beat off the piecemeal Union attacks. Union casualties were 18 killed and 51 wounded. Confederate losses were 1 killed and 7 wounded. The Confederate press made much of the victory, although it had little meaning other than as the first example of the gross military incompetence of Benjamin Butler that would hamper Union operations for almost the entire war. Here is Butler’s self-serving report of this fiasco: Continue reading
“It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel, and Lew Wallace, yet it seems impossible to prevent it.” Henry W. Halleck
There are of course several generals in the running for this title: Ambrose Burnside, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Henry Halleck, Nathaniel Banks, Franz Siegel and the list could go on for some length. However, for me the most incompetent Union general clearly is Benjamin Butler. A political general appointed by Lincoln to rally War Democrats for the war effort, Butler in command was a defeat waiting to happen for any Union force cursed to be under him. Butler during the Bermuda Hundred campaign in 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief. Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers:
He said that the general occupied a place between the James and Appomattox rivers which was of great strength, and where with an inferior force he could hold it for an indefinite length of time against a superior; but that he could do nothing offensively. I then asked him why Butler could not move out from his lines and push across the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to the rear and on the south side of Richmond. He replied that it was impracticable, because the enemy had substantially the same line across the neck of land that General Butler had. He then took out his pencil and drew a sketch of the locality, remarking that the position was like a bottle and that Butler’s line of intrenchments across the neck represented the cork; that the enemy had built an equally strong line immediately in front of him across the neck; and it was therefore as if Butler was in a bottle. He was perfectly safe against an attack; but, as Barnard expressed it, the enemy had corked the bottle and with a small force could hold the cork in its place. Continue reading