The Frenzied First Days of War: the Path to the Battle of Big Bethel

Tensions ran high in Virginia in the last week of May, 1861. After the heady rush of victory that electrified the South following

Fort Monroe, located at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.
Fort Monroe, located at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.

the surrender of Fort Sumter and the seizing of Harper’s Ferry, anticipation of the next clash with the North grew. It was no secret that new recruits were pouring into Washington, and on the 24th, Union forces swept unopposed into Alexandria. Was this how Union General Irvin McDowell would strike the Old Dominion? Or would General Patterson try to leap from Maryland in an attempt to crush General Johnston on the way to Richmond? Or would the Northerners, as then-Colonel John Magruder anxiously wondered, invade via the coast, using the still Northern-held Fort Monroe on the tip of Hampton, VA to stage operations?

On the same day the US Army raised the Federal flag over Alexandria, Magruder received an alarming message from a man “said to be reliable” who had just arrived at West Point, Virginia. Hampton, he said, had been overrun by some 2500 Union troops. Magruder’s next steps demonstrated a levelheadedness in regards to military intelligence that many lacked, both Northern and Southern, in these early days of war. First, he asked that two small craft be dispatched to Jamestown Island, which juts into the James River some 30 miles northwest of Newport News and Hampton, in order to establish communication between the mainland and the area supposedly under Union control. He then also requested that cavalry forces be sent to him at once. “No reliable information can be attained without them,” Magruder wrote.

John B. Magruder. A graduate of West Point, "Prince John" demonstrated a certain affinity for operational intelligence operations.
John B. Magruder. A graduate of West Point, “Prince John” demonstrated a certain affinity for operational intelligence operations.

Within hours of sending this dispatch, additional intelligence revealed that the “reliable” man was actually quite mistaken. In a dispatch that sounded much less frenzied than the first, Magruder relayed that less than half the number of Union troops (1000) had landed at Hampton, and then only briefly. In addition, a small scouting party had been dispatched to Newport News. Only one company of enemy cavalry was noted. Magruder’s quick correction revealed two things: first, his awareness of the need to rapidly convey intelligence up to leadership in Richmond, and second, that he wasn’t letting his ego interfere with the execution of this responsibility. This is in contrast to Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor in Alexandria, who earlier that month took nearly 4 days to communicate the intelligence that prompted his rapid retreat from Alexandria.

The Union withdrawal would be short-lived, however. Days later on the 27th of May, Major General Benjamin Butler lead US troops back into Newport News. Two weeks later, North and South clashed in what would be dubbed the Battle at Big Bethel. Here too, as we will see, Magruder and his subordinate commanders would demonstrate quickly maturing operational and tactical intelligence capabilities that helped blunt Union advantages in troop strength and materiel.

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