A State Divided
— The Civil War in Missouri —
North and west of this location, the Battle of Belmont was fought on November 7, 1861. It was the first battle in which Ulysses S. Grant commanded an army. He had recently been promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the federal District of Southeast Missouri with headquarters at Cairo, Illinois. Opposing Grant was Major General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal bishop turned soldier. Polk was commanding the confederate fortifications at Columbus, Kentucky overlooking the Mississippi River. Directly opposite Columbus, on the Missouri side of the river, was a small hamlet and landing named Belmont.
At Columbus, towering bluffs projected toward the river and provided the first ideal location below Cairo for the placement of artillery batteries. Both sides eyed this location as being strategically important to the control of the Mississippi River. To occupy Columbus, however, would be to violate Kentucky's declared neutrality in the Civil war. On September 3, 1861, the Confederacy made the first move in this direction when Polk's army occupied heights above Columbus.
By the time of the Battle of Belmont, the Columbus fortifications bristled with 140 artillery pieces, including a 128-pounder Whitworth rifled gun nicknamed "Lady Polk." The garrison consisted of 19,000 soldiers. From the fortifications, a mile-long chain had been extended across the river to Belmont to block Union gunboats. This massive chain, requiring a six-ton anchor to hold it in place, enjoyed only a brief career before breaking, apparently of its own weight. The anchor, a short section of the chain, and remnants of the fortifications are preserved at the Columbus-Belmont Battlefield State Park in Columbus, Kentucky.
Immediately after Polk's occupation of Columbus, Grant countered by moving up the Ohio River from Cairo and seizing Paducah, Kentucky on September 6, 1861. Paducah's location in proximity to the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers opened to Union forces a route of invasion into the heartland of the western Confederacy.
By November 1861, the Confederates had established an outpost, called Camp Johnston, at Belmont to serve as an observation post. The decision by Grant to assault this encampment was based on faulty information. He had been led to believe that Polk was to send troops to reinforce pro-Southern forces under General Sterling Price in southwest Missouri. Grant was also concerned that a Union detachment sent to drive the Southern partisan commander, M. Jeff Thompson, the elusive "Swamp Fox," from the state would be cut off and captured by Polk's troop movements.
On the morning of November 7, a federal flotilla of four transports and two gunboats landed Grant's attack force of 3,114 men at Hunter's Point, two miles above Belmont. While this force attacked the Confederate camp, General C.F. Smith, Commander at Paducah, was to conduct a demonstration against Columbus from the Kentucky side of the river to discourage Polk from reinforcing Camp Johnston.
A mile march through woods and a tangle of brush brought Grant's two brigades into contact with four Confederate infantry regiments under Brigadier General Gideon Pillow. Formed in line of battle in a cornfield, this body of troops numbered roughly the same as Grant's but was poorly deployed. After more than an hour of hard fighting, the Confederates ran short of ammunition and Grant's men succeeded in scattering them.
The Federals then converged on the Confederate camp from two directions and drove its defenders toward the river where they found protection and concealment behind the nearly vertical embankment at the water's edge. Once in the camp, Grant lost control of his troops who abandoned the attack in order to loot the camp and celebrate what seemed to be an easy victory. This revelry proved premature, for Polk had been observing the progress of the battle from Columbus. While his big guns kept Grant's gunboats at a respectful distance, Polk sent two steamers across the river with additional regiments under Brigadier General Benjamin Cheatham. Their orders were to tear into Grant's flank and prevent his force from retreating to their transports.
Grant described the reaction of his men to the approaching reinforcements, "At first some of the officers seemed to think that to be surrounded was to be placed in a hopeless position, where there was nothing to do with surrender. But when I announced that we had cut our way in and could cut our way out just as well, it seemed a new revelation to officers and soldiers." The way back involved fierce fighting and many Union casualties, but Grant managed to get most of his army back to the safety of the transports. Grant was the last federal to leave the field. He boarded the transport by guiding his horse down the nearly perpendicular river bank and trotting him across a narrow gang plank.
The battle of Belmont had lasted six hours. The Union lost 120 killed, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing for a total of 607 casualties, or 20% of the total force. On the Confederate side, 105 were killed, 419 wounded, and 117 captured or missing for a total of 641 casualties, or 16% of the total force engaged.
Grant himself, acknowledged the criticisms of the North that the Battle of Belmont was a wholly unnecessary battle barren of results. But he still insisted, in his Personal Memoirs, that he had accomplished his objectives. He felt he had prevented troops from being detached from Columbus for service elsewhere, and more important, he had given his troops needed combat experience. "The National troops acquired a confidence in themselves at Belmont that did not desert them through the war," he wrote. Despite the inevitable mistakes of a neophyte general, Grant demonstrated at Belmont his steadiness of judgment under fire, and his ability to get out of tight spots - two qualities that were key to his greatness as a commander.
Polk won the Battle of Belmont, but his successful defense was in vain. Four months after Belmont, Grant launched an attack from Paducah on Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. With the surrender of these forts to Grant, Polk was flanked at Columbus and compelled to abandon the massive fortifications of this "Gibraltar of the West" without a shot being fired.