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Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia, by J. Michael Cobb, Edward Hicks, & Wythe Holt

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2013. Pp. xvi, 292. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN: 1611211166.

The “First Battle” of the Civil War

As the authors point out, this is the first proper monograph about Big Bethel (June 10, 1861). This is rather surprising given the battle’s influence.

At the time called the “first battle” of the war,  this small fight, which involved perhaps 5,500 ill-trained troops both sides together, and caused fewer than 100 deaths, had a profound affect on the course of the Civil War. It intimated that the coming struggle would be longer and harder than anyone – North or South – anticipated. And its outcome not only raised Confederate morale and lowered that of the Union, but steeled both sides to greater effort, and had important political and military consequences, arguably helping to cause the greater Union disaster at Bull Run just 41 days later. 

In telling of the battle, the authors note how it shaped several military reputations, such as those of John B. Magruder, Dick Hill, and Ben Butler, but they tend to focus more on the experiences of the men in the ranks.  In explaining how events unfolded, the authors draw upon a vast number of letters, diaries, and memoirs to supplement official reports, news articles, and other literature.  They also do a good job of explaining the geographical setting of the battle, a matter often done carelessly.  These approaches allow them to cover the events in considerable detail, and place the battle within the context of the entire war. 

Battle of Big Bethel is an excellent treatment of this long-neglected fight and serves as a useful introduction to the early weeks of the Civil War.

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Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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