Two Armed Mobs Part 2: The battle of Big Bethel, 10th June 1861

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29 April 2021
By Arthur Harman. Pictures by The Editor

To paraphrase a familiar military maxim: no wargame scenario survives contact with its players! So, rather than simply give the troops’ starting positions and objectives and thereafter leave the players free to issue orders that may alter events to such an extent that the resulting tabletop battle resembles its historical inspiration in name only.

 I have decided to create a series of ‘Scenes’ (mini-scenarios, if you like), divided into two Acts (three articles, the Editor permitting), that will enable the players to more closely experience how the inexperienced Union troops ‘saw the elephant’ and the way the engagement unfolded, albeit sometimes in a rather unconventional way. Since the players will mostly be taking the roles of Union officers I have referred to ‘Rebels’ in their briefings and the game organiser’s notes, but to ‘Confederates’ when providing ideas for controlling or umpiring the enemy.

Readers should note that this article is aimed at prospective game organisers, not the players (for reasons which will become apparent), who should be actively discouraged or physically prevented from reading it before any of the games…

For the Prologue, forces, uniforms and general outline, please see the first part of this article from last month’s issue.

We begin at:


“This is an ill-advised and badly arranged movement.” (Lieutenant John T. Greble, US Artillery)

The first scene is a ‘closed’, umpire-controlled map kriegsspiel of the night marches of the two Union columns upon Little Bethel, according to General Butler’s orders – either his historical orders, summarised below, or an ‘alternative history’ plan that has been devised by the players themselves in the planning session. 

There are no Rebel roles, nor are there any Rebel forces at Little Bethel, but the players should not be aware of these crucial facts – indeed, the game organiser can ‘suggest’ that they have been assigned roles randomly to encourage them to believe they may encounter Rebel forces en route. Players will take the roles of Colonel Washburn at the head of the Camp Butler column; Colonel Bendix and the 7th New York; Colonel Duryee and the 5th New York at the head of the Camp Hamilton column; General Pierce; Colonel Townsend and the 3rd New York. The players must be given the orders appropriate to their commands, personal briefings and copies of the map secretly; and all subsequent communications by messenger with other players must be made in writing, addressed to and signed by their game role names only, through the game organiser. The Big Bethel Diagram II Union Players map might be helpful but also add a link to the Big Bethel Theatre of Operations.

A Summary of General Butler’s Original Plan 

Advance scouts will leave before midnight and provide pickets beyond Hampton.

A detachment from Camp Hamilton – the 5th New York Zouaves – will march late Sunday night, crossing Hampton Creek at 1 am. After passing beyond Hampton, it will march along a by-road around and past the Rebel outpost at Little Bethel to cut off the enemy and attack it from the rear.

An hour after the 5th New York sets off, General Pierce, the 3rd New York and two howitzers will march against Little Bethel. 

The Camp Butler contingent, the best five companies each from the 4th Massachusetts and the 1st Vermont, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, will set off somewhat later than the
Camp Hamilton detachment, as the distance to march is less. It will be followed by Colonel Bendix with the 7th New York and Lieutenant Greble’s two howitzers. 

Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn will join Colonel Townsend and his 3rd New York where the Newport News Road meets that from Hampton, a mile and a half from Little Bethel.

The opening pincer attack upon Little Bethel will be made just at daybreak. If they find the enemy and surprise them, the men will fire one volley, if desirable, but not reload, and go ahead with the bayonet.

When Little Bethel has been taken, the troops should pursue any Rebel fugitives towards Big Bethel and attack the batteries there.

Whatever the outcome at Little Bethel, General Pierce may use his discretion whether or not to attack the Rebel works at Big Bethel. 

[Camp Hamilton officers only] No attack should be made until the watchword ‘Boston’ has been shouted by the attacking regiments. All Union troops should wear white bands on their left arms. Note for game organiser: neither of these orders, however, were passed on when Butler’s ADC, Captain Peter Haggerty, relayed the plan verbally to Colonel Phelps, Washburn and Greble at Camp Butler – so this point should be omitted from the orders given to players commanding troops there! 

Later in the morning, the 2nd New York will proceed to Newmarket Bridge to provide reinforcements
if necessary.

The 1st New York will remain ready under arms at Fort Monroe to deal with unforeseen events.

The 10th New York National Zouaves will similarly be held under arms at Camp Hamilton.


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“I am sure our men received no orders to wear white badges upon the arm, and no notice that others would do so.” (Lieutenant Schaffner, 7th New York Regiment).

The game organiser must stage this scene if recreating Butler’s original plan. If the map kriegsspiel results in a similar accidental friendly fire incident between troops from the Camp Hamilton and Camp Butler columns it can be fought out on the tabletop; if it does not, the game organiser may still choose to recreate the historical friendly fire events. Refer to Diagram I: Friendly Fire. Download the PDF document.

This Scene assumes that, as happened historically, the advance guard – Companies H and I, 5th New York – of the Camp Hamilton column failed to take the turning intended by General Butler’s orders but proceeded towards Little Bethel on the main road. The Camp Butler column from Newport later joined the main road, following the same route, unaware of this mistake, and believing no Union troops would be marching behind it, left a rearguard, the largely German-speaking 7th New York regiment, which was uniformed in grey, with orders to hold the road intersection at all hazards. General Pierce, dressed in civilian clothes, and his military secretary, dressed in a grey militia uniform, then approached at the head of the Camp Hamilton column from the direction of Hampton. Each side, seeing grey uniforms, thought the other to be Rebels and opened fire! Tragically, the Camp Butler column commanders had not been informed that the watchword for the expedition was ‘Boston’, nor that the Federal troops were to wear a white band on their left arms to prevent precisely this sort of mistake…

This will be a skirmish game, but with two separate, identical player displays in different rooms.

The rearguard of the Camp Butler column, Colonel Bendix and his 7th New York and the brass six pounder 

General Pierce, Colonel Townsend and the 3rd New York at the head of the Camp Hamilton column 

Troops from the head of the Newport column, alerted to firing in their rear, will hurry back to support their rearguard, whereupon the player
taking the role of Colonel Washburn will reinforce Bendix on the Newport column display. Soon afterwards, Captain Kilpatrick with Companies H and I, 5th New York, scouting out Little Bethel – who may not be aware that Colonel Washburn’s grey-clad troops (See Uniform Notes, below) are some distance behind him, and vice versa – will also march back down the road towards the firing in his rear, to
 appear on the same display. The remainder of the 5th New York, under Colonel Duryee, over on the right beyond the Tunnel Farm, will march to the sound of the guns to join Pierce and Townsend on the Hampton column display.

The sound of musketry will also result in the 2nd New York marching towards the Newmarket Bridge to join the action and the 1st New York being sent forward from Fort Monroe. The exact timing of the appearance of these units can be determined by
die rolls.

The fact there are actually no Rebel troops in the vicinity must be kept secret, as in the approach march map kriegsspiel. 

The majority of the troops are “without experience, and almost without drill” (according to Captain Thomas W. Clarke, 4th Massachusetts) so they will react badly to coming under fire for the first time, be confused and shaken by what they believe to be a surprise attack, and some may panic and run. The entire regimental band of the 3rd New York fled back to Hampton, whilst the fire of Bendix’s 6 pounder caused the horses hauling Townsend’s artillery to stampede back towards the New Market Bridge, overturning the guns! Morale rules must be adjusted accordingly to reflect this lack of experience and discipline in both troops and horses. 

The action should be fought out until the players discover the mistake, most likely when Kilpatrick’s detachment of the 5th New York join Bendix’s troops and realise the latter are not wearing the white armbands ordered by General Butler. Any casualties and desertions suffered by all the units involved, and any effects upon their morale, should be recorded for use in the later tactical battle.

Alternatively, follow the principle of Paddy Griffith’s Men Against Fire game of having very simple, circular displays representing the field of vision – restricted by the woods bordering the Hampton-Yorkton Road – of each individual player’s character and the troops under his immediate command. The players sit in a large circle, facing outwards, in a random order the bears no relation to the relative positions of their men, with their personal displays on trays or chess or other family game boards on their laps; the game organiser is in the centre, behind them, with his master display. Each turn the game organiser receives the players’ orders ticked on ‘menus’ inside transparent plastic wallets, updates his display, determines anything that has become visible, the results of ‘enemy’ fire and its effects upon the men’s morale, and informs the appropriate players accordingly by writing on the backs of their ‘menu’ wallets with a washable marker pen. Plenty of opportunities for confusion and friendly fire!

Start with the players taking the roles of Bendix and his rearguard in the woods at the bend of the road, catching sight of “two mounted men in grey” - Pierce and Winthrop - riding towards them up the road, followed by a column of troops. The Pierce, Winthrop and Townsend players simultaneously notice “soldiers in grey uniforms, without white armbands”, lurking in the woods… 


“Much blame is attached to General Pierce but he is no more to blame than all the rest of the superior officers.” (Private J. Drake, 4th Massachusetts) 

Following the friendly fire incident, which must have both discomfited his troops and alerted the Rebels to their presence, General Pierce had to decide whether to continue with the original plan or abandon it and withdraw. Despite protests by some of his officers, Pierce resolved to continue, believing he had no choice but to obey Butler’s orders. 

In this short committee game, two players take the roles of Colonels Duryee and Washburn (or the commanders of whichever regiments have suffered most casualties in an ‘alternative history’ encounter) who will argue that, as the element of surprise has been completely lost and their men are disheartened, the attempt on the Rebel position at Big Bethel should be abandoned immediately. 

Two other players will take the roles of General Butler’s military secretary, Major Theodore Winthrop, and aide de camp, Captain Peter Haggerty, and argue that it is Pierce’s duty to follow his superior
officer’s orders. 

The game organiser and the other players listen to the discussion and then vote which officers have ‘won’ the debate; if the decision is that the Union forces should withdraw; the ‘alternative history’ wargame will end, but the game organiser can still choose to refight the historical engagement by staging Scenes IV, V and VI, as he will if the Council of War decides to continue with the plan. 



In the final part of this trilogy I will conclude Big Bethel with another three ‘scenes’. 

This article originally appeared in issue 453 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.


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