Before Bull Run: The “Battle of Big Bethel”

While Bull Run or Manassas is generally viewed as the first major battle of the American Civil War, several combat actions occurred prior to July 21, 1861. Among the most overlooked is the battle of Big Bethel, fought on June 10, 1861 on and near what is now Langley Air Force Base on the Virginia Peninsula. Writing the next day, a soldier of the 5th New York Zouaves described Big Bethel as “the greatest engagement that had been fought in this war.” Bull Run would change that.

The battle resulted when Gen. Benjamin Butler advanced two columns against Confederate outpost near Big Bethel. The ensuing engagement offered a telling prelude to the chaos and confusion that was to come the following month at Bull Run. Arriving U.S. troops fired on their comrades in the advance. In the end, the Confederates repulsed the U. S. advance inflicting 71 killed and wounded. Among the wounded, was Captain Judson Kilpatrick, who later gained reknown as “Kilcavalry” while serving as a mounted commander. The letter below was written by a member of the 5th New York (Duryea’s Zouaves) shortly after the battle and recounts Kilpatricks heroism after being shot.

NYH 6 16 61 Judson Kilpatrick Letter on Big Bethel


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