Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Battle of Bethel, June 10, 1861

Battle of Bethel, 1861. From the Union perspective.

John Stewart Walker's Seventh Letter

The Battle of Bethel (or Big Bethel or Bethel Church) is considered by many to be the first real land battle of the war. There had been a few minor skirmishes, but this was the first clash that that seemed to earn the distinction of being a battle. It was a resounding Confederate victory, and J.S.W was right in the middle of it. Here is his account.


Camp at Kings Mill Warf,
(Date of Battle of Bethel, June 10, 1861.)

My dear Lucy, David and Mary:

                Papa must try and write you a letter about the battle when we made the Yankees run. While we were all sleeping in our houses made of brushes, and at 3 o’clock in the morning, the trumpet sounded for us to jump up, put on our swords, and take our guns and go to meet the enemy. We were soon all ready and marched, but only a part went down the road. Father’s company stayed, and with spade and shovel threw up the earth to stand behind to fire at the enemy. We had our breakfast brought to us by Jim Crow and Charles and we ate it, and the we saw our soldiers who had gone down the road coming back, and they told us to get ready to fight as soon as we could, as the Yankees were coming, 5,000 men, and we had but 1,200. So we all got ready to give them some bullet and cannon balls for their breakfast, and we soon saw them coming and the cannon began to fire at them and kill them, and they fired their cannon back at us, but the Lord did not let them hurt us, and presently Father saw some Zouaves with red breeches on coming slyly through an orchard under the trees to keep us from seeing them, but I saw one of them standing under an apple tree a long way off, 500 yards, and Father said to one of his men named Baldwin* (not the preacher), “Baldwin, stand up and see that man under the apple tree”, and he said “I see him, sir”. I then said “Take good aim and fire at him”, and he fired and killed him, and when the battle was over our Colonel went under the apple tree and there was the Zouave with a ball through his heart, and Papa made more of his men shoot and more Zouaves fell, and then they all ran away that were left, and were afraid to come back any more.
 If you could have heard the roaring of the cannon and the whistle of the bullets as they flew over and around Father you would have thought he would be killed, but he had a shield and they could not strike him, and that shield was the Lord’s, who kept him from danger, and you ought to be very thankful to your Heavenly Father, and you ought to pray to him every night and morning to spare your Father and take care of him as he did in the Bethel battle. The cannon balls would strike the poor horses and they would shriek out and run madly about and then fall down and die, and some of the Yankees shot three or four of our soldiers and they would come in bleeding, but they weren’t hurt much except one poor fellow, a brave man, who was shot in the forehead and died that night. He was trying to burn down a house behind which the enemy had hid themselves and which protected them from our fire on them. We did not want to burn the house, as it belong to a poor widow, and we spared it as long as we could, but we had at last to do it to save ourselves, and he went up to the house to apply the torch and one of the Zouaves that was hid behind the house shot him.
While the battle was going on, the General (McGruder) came up and said “Where is Capt. Walker?”
“Here am I, sir” I said, and he said “Captain, I want you to take your company and go as fast you can about 1½ miles off and keep the enemy from coming around to shot at us in the rear”, and Father said “I will do it”, and away he went, 65 men to keep 1500 off and fight their forces away, but they did not come but thought it was best to go back the same way they came, and away they ran, throwing away everything to get along the faster, and Col. McGruder followed them but they ran so fast and burned the bridge behind them, so they got away badly whipped and routed, and after we had buried their dead, for we had none of our own, we came back to our quarters at Yorktown. When Jim Crow and Charles hear the cannon balls and musket balls they ran away and hid themselves to keep from being killed, and Charles says he knows if he had been where Mars John was that he would have died for certain of fright.
Pap sent up to Uncle David a musket from one of the Zouaves that was killed, which I give to my little David as a memento of the Battle of Bethel.
Some of Father’s men carried up 13 prisoners to Richmond the other day that were taken in battle. If you could have seen them you would have seen a set of very mean looking fellows.
I could write a great deal more of the fighting, but I must wait till I get home and then tell you all about it and a great many stories about the war, and what we did and all that, and now, my dear little children, you must be very good, obey your Mother, pray for your father, and ask Him to have mercy upon your enemies and turn them from their mad designs that we may not be forced to kill then in defence of our rights.
Give Pap’s love to all the little cousins and children in the neighbourhood.

                Your very affectionate Father,

                                Jno. S. Walker

* Probably Pvt. William H. Baldwin


  1. Again, another really interesting and entertaining letter! Thanks for sharing.

    Have you had a chance to visit the battlefield?

  2. Despite living most of my life within 100 miles of the site, I never visited. I never appreciated the importance. Now, 3,000 miles away, I'd love to check it out. Who knows what the future may bring.

  3. That's too bad, such it often seems to go. Maybe one day eh?