Battle of Belmont
On November 6, 1861, Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant left Cairo, Illinois, by steamers, in conjunction with two gunboats, to make a demonstration against Columbus, Kentucky. The next morning, Grant learned that Confederate troops had crossed the Mississippi River from Columbus to Belmont, Missouri, to intercept two detachments sent in pursuit of Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson and, possibly, to reinforce Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s force. He landed on the Missouri shore, out of the range of Confederate artillery at Columbus, and started marching the mile to Belmont. At 9:00 in the morning, an engagement began. The Federals routed the Confederates out of their Belmont cantonment and destroyed the Rebel supplies and equipment they found because they did not have the means to carry them off. The scattered Confederate forces reorganized and received reinforcements from Columbus. Counterattacked by the Confederates, the Union force withdrew, reembarked, and returned to Cairo. Grant did not accomplish much in this operation, but, at a time when little Union action occurred anywhere, many were heartened by any activity.
In the fall of 1861, while much of the national attention was focused on events in the east, a tense political and military situation was also developing in the west. The border states were particularly sensitive. In Kentucky the election of Abraham Lincoln brought the politically diverse population into turmoil. In the southern and western sections of the state, where slave labor produced the state's most importatnt cash crops, tobacco and hemp, the sentiment fell fully with the Confederacy. In the northern and eastern portions of the state a more diverse economy based on ties to the manufacturing states to the north led the population to favor continued allegiance to the Union. It was a difficult position for Governor [[Beriam Magoffin[[. He opposed secession in favor of mediation and hoped to avoid open bloodshed. In an effort to mitigate the the conflict between the split factions and to keep troops from either side from entering the state he issued a Proclamation of Neutrality on May 16, 1861.
Despite the position of neutrality the state was quickly surrounded by troops from both sides. The tense atmosphere continued until September 4, 1861 when Major General Leonidas Polk ordered his Confederate troops, under Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, north to occupy Columbus. The port town on the Mississippi River was also the terminus for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Polk saw the position as critical to the Confederate effort to control the river. His unauthorized movement violated the neutrality of the state and justified the advance of Federal troops into Kentucky. The newly appointed commander of the District of Southeast Missouri, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, disembarked an expeditionary force at Paducah. The war was on in Kentucky and it would start in and around Columbus.
Kentucky was not just a political hotspot. It was geographically located to be at the center of military interest in the west. Located north of Tennessee, the state if left to neutrality formed a natural buffer for the Confederacy. However, the western corner of the state also offered a number of excellent military advantages to whichever side controlled it.
This area of interest would give the Confederates the opportunity of controlling access to the upper Mississippi River. This was the key factor that led Polk to ultimately violate the neutrality declaration and move troops into the state. The bluffs at Columbus and nearby Hickman gave Polk a commanding position overlooking the river. He wasted no time turning the position into a defensive bastion complete with fortifications and artillery. Furthermore, if his advance could be pushed as far north as Paducah he would have the ability to interdict traffic on the Ohio River. The Ohio led to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which flowed into central Tennessee. Any Union forces moving in that direction might threaten to turn his position at Columbus.
Quite naturally the Union forces wished to deny the enemy the benefits of such a move and maintain the avenues of approach into Tennessee for any future movements. Major General John Fremont was considering an early move into the area but was foiled by the political necessity of observing Kentucky's neutral status. When Polk moved his forces into the state all pretense of neutrality was gone and the Federal troops were free to act to counter the Confederate move. Grant, reacting to the report of a spy (Charles DeArnaud) that the Confederates intended to move on Paducah, rushed a small force into the area. Grant fully understood the military ramifications if Paducah were to come into Confederate hands and garrisoned the town with the 9th and 12th Illinois, under the command of Brigadier General Eleazer Paine, on September 6th.
The location of the opposing forces also gave them the ability to support operations across the Mississippi in the equally volatile state of Missouri. Across the river was the Confederate camp at Belmont, Missouri, which teamed with the Polk's defenses at Columbus effectively closed the river to Union traffic and provided an entryway for troops and material for the Confederate forces in the state. The Union priorities in the region were thus dictated by the positions assumed in the first week of September:
- Remain vigilant against any possibility of an invasion into southeast Missouri from Kentucky.
- Prepare for any move against Paducah.
- Maintain a watchful eye on the pro-Confederate state troops led by Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson, which were a primary concern for Fremont's bungling efforts in Missouri.
The Confederate command, under an inept Polk and equally inept Pillow, concentrated on the defenses at Columbus and never expanded the defensive line to support the Tennesse forts. It was a problem that would plague the early defense of that state. Nevertheless Polk's position at Columbus appeared to present all the options that Fremont feared. With these missions in mind the two sides began to eye each other.
The opening weeks of the standoff in western Kentucky were dominated by the powerful misconceptions about the opposing commander's intent. Fremont believed that the Confederate presence at Columbus posed a serious threat to the Union positions in both Kentucky and Missouri. He directed his subordinate commander, Grant, to secure Paducah and be vigilant for any offensive movement of the enemy. He continually sent warnings based on reports from spies and scouts that Polk had his troops on the march. Each time the reports proved baseless. Besides tiring of Fremont's cries of wolf, Grant was of a different mind.
Polk's attention was entirely set on establishing Columbus as an unassailable fortress. There was little in his actions that indicated any threat of assuming the offensive. He concentrated his efforts on controlling the river from his high ground. His artillery compliment grew steadily until it reached 140 guns, including a 8 ton breech loading behemoth named "Lady Polk" after his wife. To stop any Union river traffic and make them better targets for his arsenal, Polk had a huge chain stretched across the river. The chain was kept afloat by makeshift log pontoons and secured to the Kentucky shore by a 6 ton anchor. Polk also kept his nearly 20,000 men busy digging fortifications in preparation for a Federal attack. Much as Grant expected he displayed little in the way of aggressiveness.
Grant based his estimation on prior knowledge of Polk and Pillow, the commanders he was facing. The two had earned less than sterling reputations for their roles in the Mexican War. Grant was familiar with the pair and when he learned that they opposed him he stated that they "would not be a formidable enemy." Polk was a favorite of President Jefferson Davis and had been assigned to the west to monitor the actions of the lightly regarded Pillow. Unfortunately the plan backfired when Polk was convinced by Pillow that the military benefits of a Kentucky invasion outweighed the political consequences. Given the opinion that Polk was cautious and Pillow incompetent Grant thought it doubtful that the pair would assume the offensive from Columbus.
Grant advocated strongly for a Union move against the Confederates. He thought the only chance to remove the enemy was to attack them before they could fully develop the defensive potential of the bluffs. Initially Fremont agreed and a two prong offensive was planned. A column from Paducah, now an independent command under Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, would threaten the inland side of Polk's fortress while Grant would lead a waterborne force into eastern Missouri. After clearing any threat from that area he would turn and form a combined assault on Columbus. The Confederate victory at Wilson's Creek ended the plan and the Union chief turned his attention back to the defensive.
Grant dutifully returned to the mundane task of training and arming his troops. He did not relinquish his desire "to advance" his 15,000 men on the enemy however. The first opportunity for an offensive move came when Fremont allowed the establishment of two camps on the western bank of the Mississippi. The troops stationed there (about 3,000 men) had the regular duty of hunting the elusive Confederates. The occasional and usually fruitless expeditions carried out from these camps did little to quell Grant's appetite for aggressive warfare.
Staging for battle
Grant received a message from Fremont on November 2 indicating that Jeff Thompson's presence had been confirmed "at Indian Ford on the St Francois River". Fremont had dispatched a column, under Colonel Carlin, and ordered that Grant support it. Fremont's plan was to conduct a three pronged effort to trap him near the Arkansas border. Two of the columns were comprised of Grant's troops. Colonel Richard Oglesby led 4,000 men from Bird's Point and Colonel J. B. Plummer led 3,000 more out from Cape Girardeau. The requested troops were on the march on November 3.
On November 5 Grant said he received another telegram (never found) from Fremont informing him that Major General Sterling Price's army in Missouri was being reinforced from the garrison at Columbus. Grant's November 17, 1861 revised report of the affair suggested that Fremont had requested a demonstration be made immediately against the fortress to stem the flow of men and material to Price. Grant assembled his forces and also requested that Smith mount a demonstration against Columbus from the inland side. He also sent word to Oglesby to "turn your column toward New Madrid." Colonel Wallace was also instructed to put what remaining troops he had available (about 400) on the march to meet Oglesby when he turned south. The united column was to "communicate with me at Belmont." With the Polk's left and right flank threatened Grant planned to assault the main defenses at Columbus with a 3,100 man combined arms force that would be taken to the landing sites on six transports escorted by the Navy gunboats. With the plan established Smith's diversionary column marched from Paducah on November 6th. Grant's troop's loaded the transports and prepared for their role in the operation.
Yet another message, this one from COL Wallace, altered Grant's plan again. The messenger, who arrived on a steamer, interrupted the preparations for the demonstration against Columbus at 0200 on November 7. Wallace informed Grant that he had learned from "a reliable Union man" that the Confederates "had been crossing troops from Columbus to Belmont." In his justification for the coming action Grant stated that he felt that this threatened the columns of Oglesby and Wallace and changed the target of his expedition. He decided to "attack vigorously" the enemy forces at Belmont. Orders were issued that broke the Union forces into two brigades. The first, under Brigadier General John McClernand, and the second under Colonel Henry Dougherty. The force was to "debark at the lowest point on the Missouri shore where a landing can be effected in security from the rebel batteries" at Columbus.
The attack begins
The decision to change the demonstration at Columbus to an attack at Belmont was taken without authorization from Fremont. In fact, it was directly opposed to his order that the operation should be confined to a demonstration and no attack should be made at any point. Nevertheless, Grant felt that the reported build up of enemy forces at Belmont posed a significant threat to his troops on the march in Missouri. Specifically, he was concerned that Oglesby could be cut off and destroyed if action was not taken to preclude such a move.
The transports departed the staging area at Island No.1 with an escort of the gunboats Tyler and Lexington at 0700. The landing were made at 0830 about three miles north of Belmont, or "just out of range of the rebel batteries at Columbus." After assembling the troops in cornfields McClernand began the march south after posting a battalion of 2nd Brigade troops (2 companies of the 7th Iowa and three companies of the 22nd Illinois) to secure the landing site. McClernand also dispatched his available cavalry force (128 men from two Illinois companies) to clear the road and adjacent woodlines. The order of march was established as 27th Illinois in the lead followed in order by the 30th Illinois with one section of the Chicago Light Artillery, the 31st Illinois with the remaining section of artillery, and the remaining troops of the 7th Iowa and 22nd Illinois in the rear. Two companies from each regiment were placed forward as skirmishers. The uneventful march came to an end when they reached an abatis and cavalry troopers were "skirmishing sharply" with the Confederate pickets.
At the abatis McClernand formed his line of battle. The left wing consisted of the 7th Iowa and 22nd Illinois, the right the 27th and 30th Illinois with one section of guns, and the center by the 31st Illinois and the remaining section of artillery. Two companies from each regiment were ordered forward to "seek out and develop the position of the enemy." As the line was being assembled the Confederate batteries at Columbus shifted their fire away from the two Union gunboats and engaged McClernand's men "without serious effect." As the firing near the center of the line grew more intense McClernand fortified the two companies of skirmishers there with additional assets. On a personal reconnaissance forward McClernand discerned a more favorable position and "ordered up the balance of my command". The Union troops moved forward and formed the new line in the same configuration as the first. McClernand believed that the new line encircled the enemy camp and hoped that this would control "the river above and below him" thus preventing reinforcements from Columbus coming to the aid of the apparently trapped Confederates.
The camp taken
The initial attack "pressed vigorously upon the enemy" driving the defenders back about a quarter mile. They were strengthened there by the arrival of four regiments of Tennessee troops (12th, 13th, 21st, and 22nd) from Columbus under Pillow. The first reports of Union activity on the Missouri side of the river caused the camp commander, Colonel Tappan of the 13th Arkansas to request help from Polk. The reinforcements departed the Kentucky shore at about 0900 and joined the fray shortly thereafter. The Confederates attempted to make use of the new strength to move around the Union left flank. McClernand reacted by ordering Colonel John Logan, commanding the 31st Illinois, to extend the line in that direction. The movement created a gap between the 30th and 31st Illinois that was covered by shifting of guns into the area. The adjustment proved effective and the flanking "attempt was frustrated."
A "combined movement" of all the Federal troops closed in and the defenders were pushed back into their camp. A battery was ordered up to "within 300 yards" and opened fire into the camp. The heavy volume of musketry from three sides and the artillery fire was enough to drive the Confederates toward the river. They found shelter on a small wooded plain made available by the seasonal low water. The refuge was in clear site and range of the enemy guns at Columbus and McClernand declined to challenge them there. Possession of the camp was enough for McClernand to cal for "three cheers for the Union."
At this point chaos took over as the victorious Union troops began to rifle through the tents of the encampment. This disorder coupled with the efforts to recover the captured artillery was enough to prevent the Federals from recognizing the approach of a second wave of Confederates from Columbus until too late. Landing above the camp was the 2nd TN, 15th TN, 154th TN, 11th LA and the 1st MS Battalion. Not only did these troops pose a serious threat to the Union flank they also had the possiblity of cutting them off from their transports upstream.
The first to arrive was Brigadier General B. F. Cheatham and staff who gathered the remnants of the 13th Arkansas, 22nd Tennessee, and 13th Tennessee and marched north for a strike against the Union transports. Further north the brigade of Colonel Preston Smith, with Polk along, landed and moved south against the Federal forces at Camp Johnston. Polk was free to react to the growing sounds of battle at Belmont by the early withdrawal of Smith's demonstration column from Paducah and the ability of his batteries to keep the Union gunboats at bay.
In the camp the first rounds of artillery from Columbus landing in their midst convinced the Union leaders to burn the camp and return to their boats. The disorganized men were assembled and the march began with McClernand's brigade in the lead. They had not traveled far when column Cheatham's men bumped into the flank of COL Dougherty's column headed in the same direction. Cheatham recalled in his report that the first contact with the Federal column was made when they came upon "50 mounted men who were hailed and found to be Illinois cavalry." This small group of troopers was backed by Dougherty's two regiments of infantry (7th Iowa and 22nd Illinois). The sudden appearance of the enemy on their flank caused confusion and panic as Dougherty attempted to face the Confederate threat.The Confederates were brought into line of battle and exchanged fire with the Federals. Dougherty fell with a wound that would eventually lead to the amputation of his leg. A bayonet charge by the Confederates routed the Union line. As the Union infantry fled into the forest Cheatham brought his men into position behind McClernand's lead elements.
At the same time Smith's Confederate column had established a blocking position on the Hunter's Farm Road directly in the path of the Union retreat. McClernand, with Grant present, now found himself trapped between the two enemy lines. Amid cries that they should surrender Grant decided that they had "cut their way in and could cut their way out just as well." The Chicago Battery (Battery B, 1st Illinois Light Artillery) was posted on a small rise and ordered to blow a hole in the Confederate line. Captain Ezra Taylor reported firing 400 rounds from his six guns. None were more important than these. Using double-shotted canister followed by a massed volley a hole was made in the Confederate line. The 31st Illinois rushed into the breach and secured the escape route without significant resistance. Colonel John Logan noted the demoralizing effect of the artillery by stating that "the enemy gave way before us without firing a gun". The stage was set for a wild chase to the transports.
End of the battle
Having pushed aside the Confederate defenders the Union forces mad a break for their boats. In the confusion the 27th Illinois and a portion of the cavalry returned to the route they had taken in thus becoming separated from the main body that was taking the more direct route on the main road. To accomplish the desired speed two of the captured artillery pieces were spiked and left behind. When they reached the landing site they found that the security detail (2 companies of the 7th Iowa and three companies of the 22nd Illinois) that had been placed at the site was also missing. As the troops were hustled on board messengers were sent to recover the absent men. After an hour the security detail was found guarding a road to the south. CPT Detrick, the detail commander, wrote that he had been ordered down the road by one of Grant's aides. They were put aboard as the enemy column closed on the landing site. The growing threat caused the boats to begin pulling away from the shore without the 27th Illinois. The last aboard was Grant who barely managed to get onto the boat as troops fired into the enemy from the railings.
The delay caused by the absent Union troops allowed time for the Confederates to regroup. They took good advantage of the opportunity granted them. The Confederates regathered themselves and took up the chase. Cheatham ordered COL Smith, arriving with the second wave of his brigade, "forward at double-quick, hoping to arrest the flying column of the enemy". They arrived shortly after the final Union troops had been loaded. Polk ordered the 154th Tennessee "along the river bank" to deliver fire into the boats as they were casting off. The Union gunboats, Lexington and Tyler, returned and opened fire on the Confederates. Polk saw victory "in possession of the field"and determined that further efforts were worthless. At sunset he ordered his "troops to retire".
Meanwhile Colonel Napoleon Buford and the 27th Illinois remained stranded. Seeing the "steamboats were all in advance steaming towards Cairo" Buford sent his adjutant, on a borrowed horse, to charge forward and attempt to signal the boats. The aide was able to reach the steamer Chancellor, which turned around and under guard of the two gunboats returned to pick up Buford's command. The men were loaded without further incident. The only thing left was to do at Belmont was gather the wounded and prisoners and bury the dead.
On the water
Because the Mississippi River separated the opposing forces from the battlefield water transportation was critical. The Union forces needed to move troops across the river under the guns of the Confederate stronghold at Columbus. The threat of these guns forced Grant to make his landings several miles from his objective. The time taken to march that distance allowed the Confederate troops to gain warning of their approach and appeal for the help that eventually won back the lost camp. Under the protective umbrella of the big guns the Confederate reinforcements could make an uncontested trip across the river and be delivered to the exact point where they were needed.
The movement on the water began at 0300 when the Union gunboats Lexington and Tyler "started down the river for the purpose of engaging their batteries at Columbus." This foray was stopped short by a natural enemy. A dense fog that made navigation impossible and forced the two boats to turn around and return to the starting point. The two boats started out again at 0600 as escorts to the convoy of six steamers that were carrying Grants forces across the river. The landing were accomplished "just without...the range of their guns." After disembarking the troops the two gunboats, both converted timberclad sidewheelers, moved downriver to "engage their batteries". After an exchange of fire in which the Union boats fired "several rounds" they again backed away. The unexpected range of the batteries caused Captain Walke to move the boats and the now empty steamers further up the river.
As the sounds of battle grew Captain Walke decided to make another run at the batteries to divert any possible fire that might assist the Confederates fighting for their camp. At 1000 he steamed his boats down the river "this time going nearly a quarter mile nearer". His boldness was answered when a 24 lb shot from the enemy batteries passed through the Tyler obliquely taking off the head of Seaman Michael Adams and wounding two others. The boats beat a hasty retreat with Captain Walke noting that it was "providential that we escaped with so little damage."
After failing to make any headway against the batteries the two boats turned their firepower on to the Confederate infantry that was challenging the re-embarkation of Grant's raiding force. As the convoy pulled away General McClernand was made aware of the missing soldiers and ordered their return. They managed to recover "seeming nearly all that was left behind." For their actions the local Naval commander Captain Andrew H. Foote noted that the two warships had "rendered the most effective service."
- Lexington (448 tons with 2-32lb and 4-8" guns)
- Tyler (575 tons with 1-32 lb and 6-8" guns)
- Aleck Scott
- Keystone State
- Belle Memphis
- James Montgomery
- Rob Roy
- Harry W. R. Hill
The Battle of Belmont was a short vicious little fight that gained nothing for either side. Grant would later claim that this was a raid that accomplished all that he set out to do. The disruption caused to the Confederate activities was barely noticed. The only thing gained was an insight into a commander that would rise to power. Here Grant demonstrated all the traits that Lincoln found so wanting in his other senior leaders. He was tenaciously aggressive, decisive, and bold in the face of the enemy. He also displayed a real talent for tactical planning. This small battle included a diversionary column (although a rather weak effort by Smith), a secondary objective (Oglesby's column), inter-service coordination, and the ability to alter his plans on the fly. It is no surprise that he would eventually gain command of all Union armies.
Polk, despite his reputation as a military lightweight, handled this affair quite well. At first notice of Grant's intentions he gathered troops (Pillow) for reinforcing the camp and did not hesitate to send them. He correctly evaluated threat (or lack of threat) posed by Smith's inland march and further reinforced his troops (Cheatham) to the point where they could counterattack and drive off the Union forces. The only real negative was the inability to close the trap on Grant's retreating forces. In the final analysis nothing was gained by either side but a enlarged casualty list and some experience for the green troops and leaders.
- ↑ Grant's justifications noted in the November 17, 1861 edited version of his OR seems to ring hollow in the face of the missing November 5th message from Fremont. Additionally his orders to Oglesby to turn south predate the report from Wallace. It seems that Grant had an attack on Belmont in mind all along and used this report to justify it in hindsight. This decision was partly a result of Grant's attitude about the threat posed by Thompson's troops. Following the pounding they took at Frederickstown on October 21st Grant considered them a non-factor in the military situation.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Complilation of the Official Reports of the Union and Confederate Armies. Volume III, Reports begin on Page 266
- The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Volume 22
- Army of the Heartland, The Army of Tennessee 1861-1862, Thomas Lawrence Connelly
- Battle of Belmont: course in historical research, 1920-1921, Military History Pamphlet no. 4.
- Nothing But Victory, The Army of the Tennessee 1861-1865, Steven E. Woodworth
- The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn
- Grant and the Belmont Campaign: A Study in Intelligence and Command, William B Feis, taken from The Art of Command in the Civil War, edited by Steven E. Woodworth
- Battle of Belmont - Ulysses S. Grant takes Command, Max Epstein, taken from America's Civil War, July 1997 issue
- The Battle of Belmont, Duan Marrs, Catlin Historical Soceity