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Battle of Belmont

The Battle of Belmont was fought on November 7, 1861, in Mississippi County, Missouri. It was the first combat test in the American Civil War for Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the future Union Army general in chief and eventual U.S. president.

On November 6, Grant sailed from Cairo, Illinois, to attack the Confederate fortress at Columbus, Kentucky. The next morning, he learned that Confederate troops had crossed the Mississippi River to Belmont, Missouri. He landed his men on the Missouri side and marched to Belmont. Grant's troops overran the Confederate camp and destroyed it. However, the scattered Confederate forces quickly reorganized and were reinforced from Columbus. They then counterattacked, supported by heavy artillery fire from across the river. Grant retreated to his riverboats and took his men to Paducah, Kentucky. The battle was minor, but with little happening elsewhere at the time, it received considerable attention in the press.

Background

At the beginning of the war, the critical border state of Kentucky, with a pro-Confederate governor but a largely pro-Union legislature, declared neutrality between the opposing sides. This neutrality was violated on September 3, 1861, when Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus, a key position on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Two days later Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant seized Paducah. Grant, commanding the District of Southeast Missouri, requested permission from theater commander Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont to attack Columbus, but no orders came. For the next two months only limited demonstrations were conducted against the Confederates.

Frémont learned the Confederates planned to reinforce their forces in Arkansas, and on November 1 he ordered Grant to make a feint toward Columbus to keep the Confederates there. Grant sent about 3,000 men under Col. Richard Oglesby into southeastern Missouri. However, when Grant learned that Confederate reinforcements were moving into Missouri in the direction of Oglesby's column, he sent reinforcements and he ordered Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith to move from Paducah into southwestern Kentucky to distract the Confederates. Grant chose to strike against Belmont, a ferry landing and tiny hamlet consisting of just three shacks, some 2,000 feet across the river from Columbus. Grant's Expeditionary Command consisted of 3,114 men, and was organized into two brigades under Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand and Col. Henry Dougherty, two cavalry companies, and an artillery battery. On November 6, escorted by the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington, Grant's men sailed from Cairo on the transport ships Aleck Scott, Chancellor, Keystone State, Belle Memphis, James Montgomery, and Rob Roy.

Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk had about 5,000 troops at Columbus. When he learned of Grant's departure from Cairo, he assumed that Columbus was their primary objective and that Belmont was merely a feint. He ordered 2,700 of his men under Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow to Belmont, retaining the remainder to defend Columbus.

Grant found a small Confederate camp of observation, named Camp Johnston, at Belmont, plus an artillery battery. He decided to attack to prevent the Confederates from reinforcing Maj. Gen. Sterling Price or Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guard, and to protect Oglesby's exposed left flank from attack.

Battle

At 8:30 a.m. on November 7, Grant's force disembarked at Hunter's Farm, 3 miles north of Belmont, just out of range of the six Confederate batteries at Columbus. (The Columbus heavy water batteries featured 10-inch Columbiads and 11-inch howitzers and one gun, the "Lady Polk", was the largest in the Confederacy, a 128-pounder Whitworth rifle.) They marched southward on the single road, laboring to clear obstructions of fallen timber that formed an abatis. A mile before town, they formed a battle line in a corn field. The line, from north to south, consisted of the 22nd Illinois Infantry, 7th Iowa Infantry, 31st Illinois Infantry, 30th Illinois Infantry, and 27th Illinois Infantry, intermixed with a company of cavalry. The Confederate battle line, on a low ridge northwest of Belmont, from north to south, was made up of the 12th Tennessee Infantry, 13th Arkansas Infantry, 22nd Tennessee Infantry, 21st Tennessee Infantry, and 13th Tennessee Infantry.

Grant's attack pushed back the Confederate skirmish line and for the remainder of the morning, both armies, consisting of green recruits, advanced and fell back repeatedly. By 2 p.m., the fighting became one-sided as Pillow's line began to collapse, withdrawing toward Camp Johnston. The orderly retreat began to panic and four Federal guns opened up the retreating soldiers. After a volley from the 31st Illinois killed dozens of Confederates, the Union soldiers attacked from three sides and surged into the camp. The beaten Confederates abandoned their colors and their guns, and ran towards the river, attempting to escape. Grant was constantly at the front, leading his men. His horse was shot from under him, but he mounted an aide's horse and continued on.

Grant's inexperienced soldiers became, in his words, "demoralized from their victory." Brig. Gen. McClernand walked to the center of the camp, which now flew the Stars and Stripes, and asked for three cheers. A bizarre, carnival-like atmosphere prevailed upon the troops, carried away by the joy of the moment, having taking several hundred prisoners and the camp. In order to regain control of his men, who were plundering and partying, Grant ordered the camp set on fire. In the confusion and blinding smoke, wounded Confederate soldiers in some of the tents may have been accidentally burned to death, causing returning Confederates to think that prisoners had been deliberately murdered.

As the Federals began to march back to their transports, taking with them two captured guns and 106 prisoners, they were attacked by Confederate reinforcements brought on the transports Prince and Charm who appeared to cut off Grant's avenue of retreat. They were the men of the 15th Tennessee Infantry, the 11th Louisiana Infantry, and mixed infantry under Pillow and Col. Benjamin F. Cheatham. As the Union men turned to face the Confederate reinforcements, the "Lady Polk" fired into their ranks from Columbus and numerous other Confederate guns opened fire. The Union gunboats exchanged fire with the Confederate batteries. Grant said calmly, "Well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in."

Once back at the landing, one Union regiment was unaccounted for, separated from view by the terrain. Grant galloped back to look for it, but found only a mass of Confederate soldiers moving in his direction. He spun his horse and raced for the river, but saw that the riverboat captains had already ordered the mooring lines cast off. Grant wrote in his memoirs, "The captain of the boat that had just pushed out recognized me and ordered the engineer not to start the engine: he then had a plank run out for me. My horse seemed to take in the situation. He put his fore feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and, with his hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted on board."

Aftermath

The Confederates claimed Belmont as a Southern victory, but it was actually inconclusive and pointless. Grant had staged a demonstration and it was beaten off. Union losses were 607 (120 dead, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing). Confederate casualties were slightly higher at 641 (105 killed, 419 wounded, 106 captured, and 11 missing). The most important result of the battle was simply to give Grant combat experience at commanding a large force. It also gave President Abraham Lincoln, who was desperate for his armies to attack the Confederates somewhere that winter, a positive impression of Grant.

Belmont Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, was named after this battle.


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