A new book on the Civil War's first battle

Authors J. Michael Cobb, Edward B. Hicks and Wythe Holt will speak about the Battle of Big Bethel and their book on Nov. 11 at the Hampton History Museum. (Courtesy of Savas Beatie Publishing / November 4, 2013)

When Confederate and Union forces met at Big Bethel Church in the first land battle of the Civil War, the struggle lasted only four hours.

But there was more than enough drama and blood to make the deadly clash of June 10, 1861, historic.

A Confederate commander at Big Bethel

Working alongside Col. John B. Magruder -- the commander of Confederate forces on the Peninsula -- Col. Daniel Harvey Hill of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers gave his outnumbered troops a decisive advantage at the Battle of Big Bethel through his astute placement of earthworks and artillery. (Courtesy of the Virginia War Museum / June 3, 2011)

All across the South, newspapers crowed over the first battlefield victory of their badly outnumbered troops, while the Northern press lamented over the embarrassing loss suffered by the poorly led Yankees.

And that lopsided outcome confirmed a belief in Confederate military superiority that played out again and again in the early stages of the war.

Still, more than 152 years after the last shot sounded, the Battle of Big Bethel often get short shrift from some historians regarding the many milestones recorded by the blue and gray armies who met on the fields bordering a creek between York County and what is now Hampton.

That's one reason why a new book by a trio of writers from the Hampton History Museum makes such good and revealing reading.

Newly published by Savas Beatie, "Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia" erases any doubt about the primacy of the clash by exploring the preparations of the Confederate and Union forces in depth.

It also provides a remarkably clear and engaging narrative of the action as it unfolded on the field, showing just how smartly the Confederates performed -- especially in fortifying their position and deploying their troops -- and just how badly the valiant but poorly led Union assault stumbled.

Among the other selling points are the colorful descriptions of such commanders as Confederate colonels John B. Magruder and Daniel Harvey Hill and Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, including astute observations of physical and behavioral traits that not only reveal a lot about each man but also help explain what happened in battle.

Then there is the eye-opening examination of the responses to the battle's outcome in both North and South, where the unexpected violence and bloodshed of the clash shocked both sides -- and ruled the news until being eclipsed a few weeks later by the larger struggle at the first Battle of Bull Run or Manassas.

All three of the authors -- curator J. Michael Cobb and historians Edward B. Hicks and Wythe Holt -- will be on hand at the museum at 7 p.m. tonight (Monday, Nov. 11) to talk about Big Bethel's significance and sign copies of their book.

The event is free, and the cost of the $27.95 volume will be reduced 20 percent for the occasion and through Nov. 17 at the museum's bookstore.

The museum is located at 120 Old Hampton Lane. For information, call 727-1610 or go to HamptonHistoryMuseum.org.

Here are some of the milestones that make the Battle of Big Bethel important:

-- First combat death of a Confederate soldier, Pvt. Henry Lawson Wyatt of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers

-- First battlefield death of Union infantryman, Pvt. George Tiebout of the 5th New York Volunteers

-- First combat death of a West Point graduate and regular Army officer, Lt. John Trout Greble of the 2nd US Artillery

-- First battlefield wounding of a regular Army officer, Capt. Judson Kilpatrick of the 5th New York Volunteers

-- First friendly fire incident and casualties, suffered by Union troops near Little Bethel

-- First battlefield use of field fortifications, erected by the Confederates

-- First battlefield amputation, performed by Union Surgeon Rufus H. Gilbert on Pvt. John Dunn of the 5th New York Volunteers

-- First documented case of battle fatigue, suffered by Pvt. Thomas Murphy of the 5th New York Volunteers

-- First Union POW to be captured in battle and exchanged, Pvt. Reuben Parker of the 1st Vermont Volunteers

-- First documented service of an African-American in combat - Sam Ashe, the servant of a captain in the 1st North Carolina Volunteers

-- Mark St. John Erickson

The first Confederate casualty

Born in Richmond in 1842, North Carolina carpenter Henry Lawson Wyatt of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel, becoming the first Southern soldier to die in combat. (Photo by Tim Smith/Courtesy of the Hampton History Museum / June 3, 2011)