In a special message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln told the assembled members that: "The course taken in Virginia was the most remarkable--perhaps the most important." Historically, Virginia had been a leader in this nation. At the time of the Revolution, hers was the largest population. She provided many troops for the war, many officers, and suffered as much as or more than any of the others in the course of the war. She had provided many of the nation's chief executives up to that time, and many of her soldiers and sailors. Virginia was lodged between the North and the South geographically, and economically as well. Although the other states of the Southern Confederacy had plunged into secession after South Carolina, the issue was long and bitterly debated in the Old Dominion. The counties of the western part of the Commonwealth would eventually be split off and formed into the State of West Virigina (technically, a violation of the constitution). The decision to join the Confederacy was made with the certain knowledge that she would become a battleground. In fact, Virginia did not take the step until after hostilities had commenced in Charleston harbor and at Pensacola. The Secession Convention finally produced a resolution on April 17, 1861. It was finally ratified May 23rd, by a vote of more than 130,000 as against about 37,000 votes. The latter may represent the Kanahwa Valley and the counties of western Viriginia.
In Virginia were the Norfolk Naval station, the Gosport Naval Shipyard and the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry--the latter being one of the most modern and best equipped in the country. The loss of this border state was a severe blow both psychologically and militarily to the nation, and a boost to the new nation of the Southern Confederacy. The capital of that new nation was quickly moved to Richmond. On June 20, 1861, the counties of western Virginia seceded from the Old Dominion, and were welcomed back into the Union as the State of West Virginia. By that date, events were moving with an irresistible momentum of their own. The day after the ratification of secession was announced, May 24, 1861, Federal troops occupied the strip of land across the Potomac from Washington, and Alexandria, as i have described above. On June 1, Federal cavalry clashed with troopers from the Old Dominion at Fairfax Courthouse, and the first Confederate officer was killed. On June 3, at Phillipi, Federal troops, including the First (West) Virginia Regiment of United States Volunteers, led by Colonel Benjamin Kelley, attacked Colonel Porterfields command of about 1,000 men. It is hard to say if Porterfield had that many troops, the officers being as raw as the troops had sent in no returns. Porterfield had sent out a few, and too few pickets, who seem to have promptly found comfortable places to sleep. When the Federal Commander, Brigadier General Morris had opened fire on the town with his artillery, Kelley was as surprised as was Porterfield. This was a very minor action with four Federal troops wounded, and 26 Confederates killed an wounded. The newspapers, of course, blew it out of all proportion, especially in the North, still smarting from the Fort Sumter debacle and either unaware of or ignorant of the success at Pensacola, which was of far more military importance than the Charleston affair. An inflated sense of success lead Northerners to dub the battle "the Phillipi Races"--owing to the speed with which the Sotherners complied with Col. Porterfield's order to withdraw. Morris was unable to pursue and round them up due to a lack of cavalry. The bridge at Phillipi was important, and Morris spent the rest of his career in this war attempting to defend the nearby Baltimore and Ohio railroad. Kelley did not further distinguish himself in this war, but he was crucial to recruiting in West Virginia, and to keeping those counties loyal during the War. Porterfield demanded, and eventually got, a court of inquiry, which cited him for coolness and gallantry under fire, and then immediately condemned him for incompetence for not having properly picketted (put out guards) his position. This is still accounted the first land battle of the war--armed sucker punch would be a more appropriate title.
This "battle" perhaps lead to overconfidence on the part of Federal Troops. As a result of Fort Sumter, and the abandonment of Norfolk and Gosport, with an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Federal property by the retreating Federals, the United States Navy had blockaded the Chesapeake, and landed troops to recover the Penninsula. The finger of land between the York and the James Rivers is known as the Virginia Penninsula, running from Williamsburg to Hampton Roads, opposite Norfolk. The hasty attempt to fire the store houses at the Norfolk and Gosport yards was bungled, and the Confederates had reaped a bonanza in shot and gun tubes, which were to play a large role in the defense of Southern waterways, and especially of the James River near Richmond. The U. S. Navy landed Federal troops at Hampton Roads and Norfolk, under the command of Major General Benjamin Butler
--arguably the most hated Federal commander in the eyes of Southerners during the war. During his occupation of New Orleans, he was given the name "Beast Butler," and was alleged to have issued an order that all women in the city showing disrespect to Federal troops were to be taken up as prostitutes. Butler sent Brigadier General Ebeneezer Pierce up the Penninsula with a small brigade--about 3,000 men, and orders to secure Williamsburg. Today, in the city of Newport News Virginia, a tidal creek known locally as the Warwick River forms a city park. In 1861, there was a local crossroads store nearby, known as Little Bethel. Just beyond that was a meeting house, known as Bethel Church, or Big Bethel. Waiting there for Pierce were two Confederate officers destined to make names for themselves, and to ruin their own careers fairly quickly in the war. One was Colonel John B. Magruder
, known in the "old Army" as "Prince John" Magruder for his love of amateur theatrics. The other was Colonel Daniel Harvey Hill
, who was much the better soldier, but seemed never to get along with other officers, including his brother-in-law, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (they had married a pair of sisters). Both Magruder and Hill were soldiers of long experience, and their troops were well-drilled, and kept well in hand, unlike the casual mob which Porterfield had assembled at Phillipi. Magruder was to prove himself quite adept at field fortification, and little inclined to attack in the open field. Between them, they disposed of about 1,200 troops--during this war new Federal regiments numbered about 800 men, and Confederate regiments about 600. Well posted and dug-in behind the brackish swamps of the Warwick River, the two Southern commanders had carefully posted picketts with specific instructions, and as these fell back and came into the lines to report the advance of the Federals, Magruder and Hill knew they had chosen just the spot--the Federals were marching right up the Williamsburg road, with no cavalry vedettes out to scout or find alternate routes. When they came into sight, within 150 yards of the Confederate works, the Southerners let them have it. Pierece had mistaken the outposts for the real opposition, and was quite pleased to have united his converging columns from Hampton Roads and Newport news just at Little Bethel, which he assumed was the concentration point of his opposition. The outposts fell back in good order to the Warwick (then know as Brick Kiln Creek), and Pierce pursued, and then attacked frontally across the road. The Fifth New York Regiment (Zouaves) of United States Volunteers crossed downstream to attempt to turn the flank, but Hill had been paying attention, and when his picketts reported their approach, his regiment gave out a volley which killed the Zouave commander, Col. Wynthrop, and the Federals retreated in confusion. Pierce's entire force was infected with the panic of the Zouaves, and he had no choice but to retreat to Hampton Roads and Newport News.
This "battle" was a real battle in the sense that professional officers commanded on both sides. The striking differences with Phillipi resulted in a reversal of the casualty roster, still very low, with fewer than ten Southern casualties, and about 80 Federal casualties. The event was important, however, beyond the scale of the action, as it checked the confident advance of Federal troops up the Penninsula toward Richmond, and it restored Southern confidence in the professionalism of their officers and men. When combined with Patterson's bumbling advance in the Valley of Virginia, and the battle of First Manassas, it also lead to an unwarranted optimism in the South, but that is for a new thread.
Edit: Big dumby me . . . the battle of Big Bethel took place on June 10, 1861, one week after the embarrassing affair at Phillipi.