Tarheels During the Civil War

Friday, April 8, 2011

Graphic Letter From Big Bethel

Letter from Henry E. Benton, Co. F 1st NC Vols ( 6 Months ) describing battle of Big Bethel. First part of letter is missing, or I just missed seeing it. Spelling and punctuation is original. Items in brackets are my own.

if they had just kept on we would have had one of the hardest kind of fights at the ford for they were in a large force and we were only a hundred strong still[?] in the bushes, but I think we would have whipped them. Just after this the Capt called out for five volunteers to go and scout down the road and creek. I and four others stepped out of the ranks and we went down the creek some two or three miles but did not see anything. We staid out all day. We went to a mans house and took dinner and came back just at night. As soon as I got back I went to see some of the battle field. I saw the Captain that was shot he had a hole through his breast as large as a hens egg his face was covered with blood he was a fine looking man also near him there was a young man that was shot just under his breastbone he was ghastly looking for his eyes were open and glassy  but the worst sight I saw was near the edge of the creek there was one man there that had a shot strike him just where the hair meets his forehead and split his skull open clear through his brains were scattered all about and his face was covered with bloody foam from his mouth. I did not have any more time to look about for the Companys were forming to march back to Yorktown they all thought that I was taken for I could not be found and so I was reported missing but I turned up at the right time. Those that went over the field after the battle … that they saw only about 75 dead but that they also saw a great many limbs brains entrails and other parts of bodies where there was no dead bodies to be found it was a very bloody fight on their part for they had seized on a great many wagons and carriages to carry their dead and wounded away. And the cavalry that followed them down to Hampton said that they had burnt all the houses on both sides of the road as they came up and that they found some of their dead scattered along the road. We had only one man killed and four wounded slightly. The one that was killed and two of the wounded would not have been so, but their Capt called for volunteers to fire a house during the heat of the fight and six stepped out, they jumped over the entrenchments and ran for the house but alas one of them was shot down and two of them wounded. And so our artillery fired a shell into it and set it afire for it sheltered the enemy. While the fight was going on one of the enemy was looking through the cracks[?] of a house and a bomb shell went through the house and through him also. One man was found with a shot hole through im from the Rifle Cannon it was big enough to put your two fists through. Now I will tell you the force of the enemy and our own and the number that were engaged on our side. The enemy were 4500 strong with five or six cannons. They had several stronger and larger than ours for we could tell it by the noise that they made. We had only two pieces that could be brought to bear on them with any effect and two more that got an occasional shot and three that were placed in different places to keep them from out flanking us. The one of them was at the ford with us and shot at them once[?] our men that were actively engaged were only 500 the rest were placed about in different parts and did not get only a few shots some of them none. Our whole number was 1100 strong with 7 pieces of artillery. One Rifle and six Howitzers. That Rifle is a great improvement for it will shoot any sort of shot you will put in it to the distance of five miles. I could not see much of the fight but I could hear the bombs bursting and and the shrieks of the wounded and the cheers whenever a good shot was made. The trees crashing and limbs breaking trampling of the men above the din of the battle. Our Company (Co F) was in a dangerous place and could not return the fire. The shot fell like rain amongst them and did not touch them bombs burst around and over them and and did not bit one of them. One of our men had a piece knocked out of his musket [illegible], but did not get hit, one had a ball pass through his blouse and not touch him. Charly Murphy had a bomb burst within ten feet of him and did not touch him several burst over his head and did not touch him here our company was the trees were all skinned up. The Southern Horse[?] were just above us also in a dangerous place but they were more sheltered than we were one of them had his cheek grazed by a piece of bomb bursting but did not hurt him. The old FJSJ[?] were not in as dangerous a position as our company they were on the right flank, during the fight a body of the enemy tried to turn our right flank but they were met by the Hornets Nest Rifles who fire a volley and then charged bayonet, he had a ball pass through his wrist it is a great wonder to me and also to them that more were not hurt for the shot struck their pieces and embankment and one shot struck their tar[?] bucket just under the Howitzer and did no damage. They worked their guns as coolly as when they were on drill their officers would not let them fire only when the enemy were formed and pretty thick then they would take aim and scatter them like chaff, there were some five hundred of the enemy hid in the woods just over the creek waiting for our men to be run out by the firing of the bombs but they waited in vain. I must close up now for I am about run out of news, and have written enough of this dangerous fight and glorious victory. Next day (yesterday) we heard that they had lost [illegible] three to five hundred, the country people went into the woods around there and they found as many more killed than were thought to have been. They were strewed all around in the bushes, there were some 75 left in a yard near Hampton that died going on down there. The aide camp to the Col (Hill) had his hat knocked off his head but did not get hurt. One of the [illegible] horses had a ball pass straight through his breast. One of their mules had a bomb pass through his body this poor mule tried to run by fell down and died. It kept the bomb from bursting amongst the ranks. Col McGruder and Col Hill were walking about as if they were at home Col Hill was eating a cracker and made his servant cook his dinner all the while the firing was going on. We have the best of officers and have great confidence in them. Col Hill said that we were spoiling for a fight and so he marched us down there to have it he also that he never commanded a body of men but that he had a fight the enemy said ( so we heard by a deserter) that they were not afraid of the NC Volunteers nor Virginians that they could whip them out with cornstalks[?] and [illegible] of their muskets, but they were afraid of the Geo and Louisiana troops. I guess they found out their mistake, the prisoners that were took said that they would not have a fight but that we would of run or surrender two of the prisoners were wounded that we took one had both his legs shot off we took five in all during the fight. Please draw off an account of the fight for Miss Mary Williams for Charly Williams has had the measles he is getting well now and is most able to be about there has been two or three cases of the measles in camp. Also let Mr Murphy read it for Charley did not write any description of it to them keep the original yourself. Tell Mr McDougald all about it we are all well as may be expected only stiff and sore from our long march for we marched back to Yorktown that same night and got there at 7[?] oclock at night. The Louisiana marched down there early in the morning and got there just after the fight they marched back with us. We are expecting an attack every day from them but we will whip them again we have 5800 men and 24 field pieces besides our entrenchments. The steamer down the river had drawn nearer. They will also attack us by water. No more until after another fight and then I will write and tell you all about it if I am not killed. Let Mr Vink[?] read this and tell him if he want to fight to come here Love to all at home my respects to Mr Williams family Charley has not been very sick. George Baker sends you his kindest regards he looks forward to my getting a letter from you with as much pleasure as myself for I let him read them
Your affectionate Son
Henry E Benton

Source: Henry E. Benton Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, N.C.

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