Federal Monument at Big Bethel

Another 150th anniversary, and another new monument.  On Saturday June 11, dignitaries dedicate a monument for the Federal troops who fought in the Battle of Big Bethel.    From the Civil War News:

GRANITEVILLE, Vt. — The Vermont Civil War Hemlocks hosted the recent unveiling by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott of a monument honoring the Vermont, Massachusetts and New York units that fought in the Battle of Big Bethel, the war’s first land battle, on June 11, 1861.

The monument will be dedicated in Hampton, Va., at Big Bethel Park, a four-acre piece of battle land set aside by Langley Air Force Base. The ceremony begins at 10 a.m. RSVPs to (757) 727-1610 would be appreciated.

A wreath will also be placed at the memorial honoring Pvt. Henry Lawson Wyatt, 1st North Carolina Volunteers, CSA.

The Hemlocks, representing Co. A, 3rd Vermont Infantry, raised t he funds for the 7-foot-high marker created by Rock of Ages from Barre Gray granite. Donors included 5th New York Duryee’s Zouaves Cos. A and C, many Vermont veteran organizations, Sons of Union Veterans and the 18th Vermont Regiment.

The 1st Vermont fought at Big Bethel, the first battle in which Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in open combat. The action saw the first friendly fire incident, first Union soldier death in combat, first battlefield amputation, first West Point graduate killed in action and the mortal wounding of the first Confederate infantryman.

The 150th battle anniversary observance will begin at 6:30 p.m. June 10 with a John V. Quarstein lecture on “Big Bethel: The First Battle” and signing of his book by that name at the Hampton History Museum.

For information about Big Bethel events contact Quarstein at (757) 879-3420.

In addition to this dedication, several news articles have followed the anniversary of this small, but important early war action.   The New York National Guard recalls the “first Brooklyn casualty” was a 12-year old drummer boy.  In another article, the New Yorkers note the confusion among the volunteer regiments contributed to the Federal defeat.   Meanwhile North Carolina recalls the first fallen Confederate soldier of the war.  I know, the claim of the “first” is disputed in some quarters.

But there is one “first” I would highlight beyond those mentioned.  Big Bethel saw the first combat use of the Parrott rifle.  10-pdr Parrotts of the 3rd Company of the Richmond Howitzers featured prominently in the action.  The rifled guns exchanged fire with Federals of the 2nd US Artillery armed with 6-pdr guns and 12-pdr howitzers at a range of 600 yards.

The Parrotts used at Big Bethel were among the first guns of the type from West Point Foundry.  Major Thomas J. Jackson assessed two of these guns in 1860.  Following his recommendation, the state purchased more Parrotts.  While Virginia had those two original guns at the start of the war, my research has never confirmed the delivery times of the additional dozen ordered by the state before hostilities.  Conspicuously, the U.S. Army didn’t accept its first Parrott rifles until late May 1861.

The ranges cited by the participants certainly did not take advantage of the rifle’s longer reach.  But the Confederate gunners had the protection of earthworks to their advantage.  Both sides greatly exaggerated the effectiveness of the rifled guns in the action.  As result, in the following months Federals feared hidden Parrotts behind every tree between Alexandria and Centreville, Virginia.  All the while, Robert P. Parrott’s West Point Foundry began large-scale production of those banded iron rifled cannon.