Battle Of Belmont Summary
Mississippi County, Missouri
November 7, 1861
Union: Ulysses S. Grant
Confederate: Gideon J. Pillow
Union Army: 3,100
Confederate Army: 5,000
The Confederate soldiers peered out from their trenches, dug deep into the bluffs 150 feet above the Mississippi River at Columbus, Kentucky. The early light of dawn had cut through the morning mists, revealing the great river–the dividing line at that point between Kentucky and Missouri–twisting its way through marshlands, dense forests and untamed countryside speckled with farmhouses and cornfields. Looking north, the Southerners could make out in the distance two Federal gunboats, Tyler and Lexington, coming down the river.
During the last two months, the woodenclads had made several brief but harmless forays to test the strength and range of the 140 Confederate guns placed along the bluffs. But on November 7, 1861, the soldiers’ pulses quickened as they watched the fully armed steamers bearing down on them. Cavalry scouts had sent word that Federal transports were debarking a force of 3,000 men three miles upriver on the opposite shore, at a point concealed by the sharp bend in the river and the heavy woods on the bank. Their target was the Confederate garrison at Belmont, Mo., directly across the river from the fortified bluffs.
The blue-uniformed troops who tramped off the boats were commanded by a 39-year-old brigadier general who had held that rank for three months to the day. That morning, when the Columbus artillery fired their heavy guns blindly over the treetops at the invaders, they not only fired the first salvos of the Battle of Belmont but also unknowingly signaled the dawn of the Civil War career of Ulysses S. Grant.
Although hastily conceived, Belmont would mark Grant’s initiation into military command. Before night had fallen, he would twice cheat death, while displaying for the first time the leadership and determination that would make him the greatest general in the war. Columbus, a small town on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, was the focus of much attention in the late summer of 1861. Just 20 miles south of Cairo, Ill., it sat along a bend in the river where the Mississippi was only 800 yards wide. The steep bluffs just north of town commanded all the shipping that passed by, and equally enticing, the Mobile & Ohio Railroad had its northern terminus there, ending a rail route that stretched all the way to Corinth, Miss. Whoever controlled Columbus effectively controlled the upper Mississippi.
Both sides were facing a unique problem in Kentucky, where fiercely divided loyalties had produced a neutrality so precarious that neither North nor South dared to be the first to send soldiers into the state, for fear that such a violation would either encourage further invasion by the enemy or drive Kentucky into the other camp. President Abraham Lincoln, a native Kentuckian, said that ‘to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.’
Tension mounted throughout the summer as both Maj. Gen. John Frémont, the Federal commander in the west, and Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, the Southern commander, received reports that the other was about to march on Columbus. Frémont finally became impatient and, realizing that war in the west inevitably meant a fight in Kentucky, decided to strike the first blow. On August 28, 1861, he appointed Grant commander of the District of Southeast Missouri, with orders to clear the area of Confederate troops. The first step was to secure Cairo, then move into Kentucky and occupy Columbus. On September 4, Grant arrived at his command post in Cairo, a small frontier town situated on a low peninsula that jutted out at the juncture of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers. When Polk learned that Grant had sent a small reconnaissance party downriver to Belmont, he finally gave in to the constant entreaties of his subordinate, Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, and decided to move before the Federals did. On September 4, Pillow occupied Columbus.Both sides spent the next two months preparing themselves for the inevitable battle for Kentucky. In Cairo, Illinois and Iowa volunteers drilled and built fortifications while Grant obtained equipment and supplies, set up medical and postal systems and arranged for his soldiers’ pay. By November 1, Grant had 20,000 men under his command–almost none of whom had ever fought a battle.
Polk, meanwhile, was building the Columbus bluffs into an impregnable fortress. He had 140 big guns placed along the cliffs, including an 8-ton Dahlgren dubbed ‘Lady Polk’ after his wife. Rifled and breech-loading, the Dahlgren was capable of firing a 128-pound cone-shaped projectile. In support of the artillery, the men dug a network of trenches. As a further barrier, a massive iron chain was stretched across the river, kept afloat by log pontoons, tied to two sycamore trees on the Missouri side and grounded on the Columbus shore by a 6-ton anchor. Eventually, 19,000 Confederate troops occupied the citadel.
At the end of October, Frémont’s attention was focused on western Missouri, where the previous month Confederates under Brig. Gen. Sterling Price had captured a large Union force at Lexington. Frémont worried that Price would be reinforced by troops from Tennessee, using Columbus as a crossing point into southern Missouri. Believing rumors that Polk was about to send these reinforcements, on November 1 Frémont directed Grant to make demonstrations along both sides of the river. The next day Frémont received information that Jeff Thompson, the troublesome Rebel guerrilla leader who had been harassing Union troops and loyalists in Missouri, was at Indian Ford on the St. Francis River, 60 miles southwest of Cairo. Thompson possessed a highly mobile force that could easily provide cover for Confederate detachments as they crossed Missouri, so Frémont ordered Grant to send troops from Cape Girardeau and Bird’s Point, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, to drive Thompson into Arkansas.
But Frémont’s intelligence was wrong in both instances. Thompson was much farther east, in Bloomfield, Mo., recovering from a recent defeat. And far from sending troops into western Missouri, Polk was actually getting ready to dispatch 5,000 men east to Clarksville, Tenn., on orders from General Albert Sidney Johnston in Bowling Green, who expected a Federal attack from Paducah, Ky., which Grant had occupied on September 5.
Unaware of the true disposition of Confederate troops, Grant set out with his maiden command. On November 2 he ordered the Bird’s Point force, under Colonel Richard Oglesby, to move toward the St. Francis River. Colonel Joseph Plummer, at Cape Girardeau, would coordinate with Oglesby. Grant told Oglesby that the objective was not merely to drive Thompson into Arkansas, as Frémont had demanded, but to destroy Thompson’s force altogether. Oglesby set out on November 4, but was no sooner on his way than he received new orders from Grant to head south toward New Madrid, Mo. When Oglesby reached a road that led to Columbus, he was to ‘communicate with me [Grant] at Belmont from the nearest point on the road.’ The change in plans was prompted by a telegram Grant said he received on November 5 from Frémont’s headquarters in St. Louis, relating what again turned out to be erroneous intelligence–namely, that Price’s reinforcements were passing through Columbus. The telegram specified that Grant should make demonstrations in the vicinity of Columbus, and Grant thought he would need Oglesby’s men in support. There is no record of the telegram, and it is extremely unlikely that it was ever issued. Frémont had been dismissed from command on November 2, three days before the telegram was sent, and the Western Department was in a state of confusion that traditionally accompanies a transition of power. Major General David Hunter, the interim replacement, had not even put together his staff yet.
Grant apparently was acting on his own. It was a bold move for a new commander who had not yet seen combat in the war. He had taken command of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry as colonel in June, transforming a group of civilian volunteers into disciplined soldiers. But they had done little more than hold bridges and scour the Missouri countryside for elusive guerrilla leaders such as Colonel Tom Harris. Although Grant had been promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on August 7, three weeks later he was still without a command, languishing in Frémont’s St. Louis headquarters, frustrated and disappointed. Even when he had 20,000 troops under his direct control at Cairo, he was compelled to wait, spending every spare moment poring over maps, drawing up plans for victory, becoming more and more restless and eager to engage the enemy. In September, Grant wrote his wife, Julia, that ‘I would like to have the honor of commanding the Army that makes the advance down the river, but unless I am able to do it soon cannot expect it….I regret exceedingly that my force here [in Cairo] has been, from necessity, kept too much reduced to admit of an advance upon Columbus.’ The next month he was even more adamant, writing Julia, ‘What I want is to advance.’Fifteen years earlier, during the Mexican War, then-Lieutenant Grant had formally protested his appointment as regimental quartermaster, claiming that it removed him ‘from sharing in the dangers and honors of service with my company at the front.’ When he was ordered to remain in camp during the Battle of Monterrey, his curiosity got the better of his judgment, and he rode to the front, joining his regiment in a charge against the enemy.
The men at Cairo, although green troops, were also impatient after remaining idle for so long. Aware of their restlessness, Grant wrote later, ‘I did not see how I could maintain discipline, or retain the confidence of my command, if we should return to Cairo without an effort to do something.’ Colonel John Logan of the 31st Illinois believed that ‘the men composing our force were in good condition, and eager for a trial of strength.’ Belmont, with its small and insignificant garrison, was an ideal place for the young troops to experience their first taste of battle.
Five infantry regiments from Illinois and Iowa–totaling 3,014 soldiers–assembled in Cairo and were divided into two brigades. Brigadier General John McClernand would lead the 27th, 30th and 31st Illinois, while Colonel Henry Dougherty, who had served as a private in the Mexican War, would command the 22nd Illinois and the 7th Iowa. In addition to the infantry, the Federal force included two companies of cavalry and six guns: four 6-pounders and two 12-pounders.Before he left Cairo, Grant issued a flurry of orders to his subordinates. He sent word to his old West Point commandant Brig. Gen. C.F. Smith in Paducah, Ky., to move a force toward Columbus as a diversion. In the dispatch, Grant mentioned that an attack directed at Belmont ‘would probably keep the enemy from throwing over the river much more force than they now have there, and might enable me to drive those they now have out of Missouri.’ Colonel W.H.L. Wallace and his 11th Illinois Infantry, stationed at Bird’s Point, were ordered to overtake and link up with Oglesby.
While Grant was making preparations for attack, Pillow was getting his men ready for the trip to Clarksville to aid Johnston’s troops. Pillow’s commander, Polk, the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana, was busy trying to resign his command. Polk had accepted the post as a favor to his friend President Jefferson Davis–a temporary assignment until the fortifications at Columbus were completed and Johnston had arrived to take command in the west. With both conditions fulfilled, Polk felt it was time to return to civilian and religious life. As dusk fell on Cairo’s muddy streets on the evening of November 6, Grant and his men hastily boarded a flotilla of five steamers and, with an escort of two gunboats, floated down the dark, quiet Mississippi River. At 11 p.m., the amphibious expedition moored for the night on the Kentucky shore eight miles below Cairo and 11 miles north of Columbus. Pickets went ashore to meet up with Smith’s troops from Paducah. At 2 a.m., Grant claimed he received a message from Wallace, now at Charleston, Mo., informing him that the enemy had ferried troops from Columbus to Belmont the day before, apparently for the purpose of cutting off Oglesby. This information, it turned out, was untrue. Strangely, there is no contemporary record of the message at all, nor is it mentioned in any of Grant’s accounts written immediately after the battle. At any rate, determined to meet the enemy, Grant withdrew his pickets and at 6 a.m. moved the boats away from shore.
At about 8 o’clock in the morning, the steamers reached their destination on the Missouri side of the Mississippi–Hunter’s Landing, a point three miles north of Belmont, close to the Confederate camp but hidden by tall trees. The men disembarked on the steep and muddy riverbank and formed into ranks in a nearby clearing in front of a cornfield. After sending McClernand and his staff to reconnoiter the road to Belmont, Grant took 350 men from Dougherty’s brigade downriver and posted them in a dried-up ravine facing east to act as a rear guard and protect the transports. Belmont itself was not really a town, just a steamboat landing with a log house and a shed, on a flat, marshy, heavily wooded elbow of land that jutted out into the Mississippi. Here and there the wilderness was interrupted by a cornfield or cabin. The Confederate garrison–a log house, drill field and tents collectively known as Camp Johnston–was located directly across the river from the Columbus batteries. The men stationed at the camp had cut down the trees around the camp and used the sharpened logs and stumps as a 200-yard-long makeshift abatis.
While Grant’s men debarked and formed into ranks, the gunboats Tyler and Lexington steamed downstream to face the mighty Columbus batteries and divert their cannons from the troops. Tyler‘s senior naval officer was Commander Henry Walke. The boats were former freight and passenger side-wheeler steamboats that had been transformed into gunboats by attaching 5-inch-thick oak planks to the decks and bulwarks. The 575-ton Tyler was armed with two 32-pounders and six 8-inch Dahlgren shell guns. Lexington, at 448 tons, also had two 32-pounders and four Dahlgrens.As Walke directed his boats toward the fortress, he was greeted immediately by the thundering of cannons. Outgunned by a substantial margin, Walke moved his boats in small circles to confuse the enemy. Cannon shells fell around the boats, and the crewmen returned fire, their 32-pounders hitting the cliffs above them, doing no damage to the Rebel gunners. After about an hour, Tyler and Lexington withdrew upriver. The contest was renewed twice more that day. On the final foray, a cannonball from the Confederate batteries passed through the side and deck of Tyler, decapitating one man and wounding several others. While Walke was engaging the Columbus artillery, McClernand finished his reconnaissance, and he and Grant sent skirmishers and cavalry ahead on the road to Belmont. The infantry soon followed, and by 8:30 a.m. they were on their way southeast along Hunter’s Farm Road, ready to drive the Confederates into the river.
Polk learned about the Federal landing as soon as it began, thanks to his cavalry scouts, and he immediately sent an aide across the river to warn the camp. Next, he alerted his division commanders and summoned Pillow to headquarters for a strategy session.The Union landing, Polk assumed, was merely a feint–a carefully orchestrated diversion meant to draw precious troops away from the real objective, the Columbus batteries. The main attack surely would come from the Kentucky side, from Paducah or Fort Holt. Polk had been anticipating such an attack for quite some time, figuring that Columbus was the greater prize. Besides, the Federals could never occupy Belmont–they would be blown to pieces by the big guns across the river. Polk committed the bulk of his men to the defense of his fortress, placing them either within the batteries or along the roads running north and east. Then he met with Pillow.
Pillow, then 55 years old, came from a propertied and well-connected Tennessee family. He had made a name for himself in his native state as a successful civil and criminal lawyer, and it was not long before he entered politics as a Jacksonian Democrat. He quickly rose to prominence in the labyrinthine world of politics, being instrumental in securing the 1844 presidential nomination for his law partner, James K. Polk. But his real fortune was made in land. By 1860, Pillow’s plantation holdings made him the third largest slaveholder in Tennessee and the sixth largest in Arkansas.When the Mexican War came, President Polk rewarded his friend–first with a brigadier general’s commission and then with promotion to major general, making him second only to General Winfield Scott. West Pointers sneered at the political appointee, and Pillow’s arrogance and poor performance as a soldier did not improve his reputation. He became a laughingstock when he built a trench on the inside of a breastwork. Grant considered Pillow both conceited and incompetent.Pillow’s relationship with Leonidas Polk was not much better, affected as it was by his deep resentment at being demoted from major general of the Tennessee Provisional Army to brigadier in the Confederate ranks. At their meeting, Polk ordered Pillow to reinforce the garrison with four regiments, the 12th, 13th, 21st and 22nd Tennessee. Afterward, Polk rode around the bluffs, checking the riverside defenses.
Across the river, the garrison at Camp Johnston was presided over by a native Tennessean named James Tappan. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale College, Tappan had practiced law in Arkansas, served in the state legislature and become a judge before he raised the 13th Arkansas, which he now commanded as its colonel. Tappan also had the 1st Mississippi Cavalry Battalion and six guns, known as the Watson Battery, under the control of West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran Lt. Col. Daniel Beltzhoover. Tappan had been in Columbus the night of November 6, but as soon as he heard the news that Yankees were invading, he hurried back. Once at Camp Johnston, he quickly sent two Mississippi cavalry companies toward Hunter’s Landing. He and Beltzhoover then placed two guns and one company of infantry in a field in back of the camp facing south; the other four guns and the rest of his men were positioned about half a mile northwest, along the only direct road leading from Hunter’s Landing to the camp, the very road then being traversed by the Federal infantry.Pillow and his four Tennessee regiments arrived at Belmont at about 9 a.m., increasing the total Confederate strength to roughly 2,700 men. After deploying more skirmishers toward Hunter’s Landing, he recalled the guns and infantry from the position behind the camp and combined all his troops in one defensive line with Tappan’s other troops northwest of camp.
However, Pillow moved the line back 40 yards so that it was no longer on the edge of the forest but fully exposed in an open cornfield, a line of sitting ducks facing an enemy who would be protected by the cover of the woods. Federal cavalry soon ran into Confederate pickets and pushed them back until they reached a long, narrow slough, which was four feet deep in parts. Resistance stiffened at the slough, and when the main force caught up, the Federals deployed in a battle line inside the woods. Skirmishers went forward across the slough in regular lines. Before he advanced, Captain John Seaton of the 22nd Illinois told his men, ‘If I should show the white feather, shoot me dead in my tracks and my family will feel that I died for my country.’
The skirmishers tromped through the muddy marsh and timber, driving away a small contingent of Rebel cavalry. More troops were sent up in support, and the original line of battle was re-established on the other side of the slough. Logan, a veteran of the Battle of Bull Run, the Mexican War and the equally vicious Democratic politics in Illinois, pushed his 31st Illinois forward at the Union center until he met growing fire from the enemy. Advancing tree by tree and fighting Rebel skirmishers who were hidden behind the brush, the Union troops slowly struggled forward, sometimes shooting blindly into the woods. The artillery, known as the Chicago Battery, lagged behind, caught in the muddy ravines and thick underbrush. Its commander, Captain Ezra Taylor, was forced to cut down trees to make a path. But by 11 a.m., all Confederate skirmishers had been driven back. The men on the Confederate line waited impatiently in the cornfield, listening to the sound of muskets and men scrambling through the woods. Soon the skirmishers began to emerge from the forest, rejoining their companies on the line or bringing in the wounded. Then came the enemy.Logan and the 31st Illinois, on the Union left, were the first to face the enemy line. They came under heavy fire from the 12th Tennessee, Tappan’s 13th Arkansas and part of the 22nd Tennessee, forcing them to lie on the ground behind stumps and underbrush and shoot from that position while artillery and musket fire passed over them. The 30th Illinois caught up quickly, but when the troops reached the open field, Beltzhoover blasted them with cannon fire, decimating the Union ranks and sending them back into the woods for cover.
The Confederate batteries continued to pummel the Union lines while Grant rode up and down, shouting orders and encouragement until his horse was shot from under him. The Union men stayed in the thicket where they were shielded from the intense cannonade. Frustrated and low on ammunition, Pillow ordered a bayonet charge along his entire line to drive the enemy from its natural redoubt. The charge drove Logan’s 31st Illinois back 30 yards into the brush. On the right, the charging Tennesseans hit the 7th Iowa’s battle line and swung it back like the opening of a double gate. Seaton organized a counterattack, as did Logan, and drove the Confederates back to the cornfield. The shooting continued until around noon, when Taylor finally managed to drag his guns forward. He placed them in the front with Dougherty’s brigade and opened an exchange of cannon fire that was so fierce that Taylor found himself alone in front, his own infantry having fallen back 200 yards. Beltzhoover soon ran out of ammunition and retreated as well, leaving one gun behind in his haste. The Chicago Battery moved into Beltzhoover’s old position and opened up, breaking the Confederate line and forcing them to fall back to their camp. The Federals followed quickly.
While the fighting was going on, Colonel John Buford of McClernand’s brigade had led the 27th Illinois south around the large, wet slough, where he met up with Dollin’s cavalry. After overcoming a detachment of the 13th Tennessee that Pillow had placed on the extreme left, the combined Union force headed toward Camp Johnston by a southern route that took them into the enemy’s flank and rear.
Grant’s forces now stood on the edge of the camp’s abatis, surrounding the enemy on the west and south. The Confederates, with their backs to the river, put up a strong resistance, slowing the Federal advance through the abatis, but Grant positioned the Chicago Battery on a knoll 300 yards away. The gunners opened fire, bombarding the garrison and driving the Southerners to the riverbank and out of camp. The victorious Federals rushed in to occupy their prize.At 2 p.m., all firing ceased. Ignoring the fleeing enemy and overlooking two approaching transports loaded with Polk’s reinforcements, the young Union volunteers looted the enemy camp for uneaten food and possessions, prematurely celebrating victory with cheers and cannon volleys aimed at empty steamers far out of range. As the band started playing, the men gathered around the flagpole, according to the ritual of the day, to sing patriotic songs. McClernand, an Illinois politician and a staunch War Democrat, gave a speech. As Logan put it: ‘Fatigued with the hard march and fight, hunger invited [the Union soldiers] to the untouched breakfast, which seemed to have been especially prepared for them, and many of our men proceeded to devour it. After this, speech-making was indulged in, and loud cheers given for the Union.’
The lack of discipline alarmed the veteran Grant, who described the men as being ‘demoralized from their victory.’ In his first command as colonel of the 21st Illinois, he had curbed rampant absenteeism, drunkenness and disorderly conduct with threats of court-martial, imprisonment and even execution. But in the heat of battle, Grant could not restore order. He saw the enemy, hidden by the steep riverbank, safely escaping north to the protection of the woods. He was also aware that Confederate reinforcements were coming across the river in transports. Partly out of desperation, partly because he decided that the direct object of the expedition had been accomplished, Grant ordered the camp set on fire.Polk’s men over on the Columbus bluffs had been listening to the cannon fire and musketry all morning, but while the fighting remained in the woods all they could see were billows of smoke floating over the treetops. Once the battle moved to the clearing at Camp Johnston, however, they could see everything. When the camp was set ablaze, they realized that they could safely bombard the enemy without injuring their compatriots, and they quickly let loose with solid shot, shell and grapeshot. When the first shell landed in the middle of the drill field, the Union celebrations came to an abrupt and sobering halt. The infantrymen fell into formation and marched double-quick off the parade field, past the abatis and into the woods.
Even before the camp was in flames, Polk could see that matters were getting out of hand; alarmed, he sent in reserves. The first to cross the Mississippi was Colonel Samuel Marks with the 11th Louisiana, the 15th Tennessee, a company of Memphis Light Dragoons and cavalry. Next came Colonel Benjamin Cheatham, ferried over to reorganize the scattered Confederate survivors. Once Cheatham had crossed and disappeared into the forest, Polk himself brought over two additional regiments.
Marks landed about 400 yards north of the camp. Disorganized veterans of the morning’s battle urged him to turn back, crying that they had been defeated. Pillow arrived and ordered Marks to move his men southwest through the woods for a counterattack.When Cheatham reached the Missouri shore north of Camp Johnston, he gathered together, with the help of Tappan and Pillow, the fragments of the 13th Arkansas and the 13th and 22nd Tennessee. This reassembled force of 1,500 turned south and headed inland.
The Federals had formed a new column, with McClernand in the front and Dougherty in the rear, and were marching northwest back to their transports when Cheatham ran straight into Dougherty’s right flank. Surprised, Dougherty and his men scrambled to form a line of battle, but the troops were exhausted and there was considerable confusion. The two forces exchanged volleys until a Confederate bayonet charge broke through Dougherty’s line in the midst of an artillery barrage. Dougherty fell with a shattered leg that later had to be amputated; the rest of the bluecoats fled through the woods.Meanwhile, McClernand led his column into the cornfield and ran straight into Marks’ soldiers, who were positioned astride Hunter’s Farm Road. The morning’s roles were reversed as the Confederates emerged from the woods toward a Union force out in the open. Caught between Cheatham behind them and Marks in front, cries of ‘Surrounded! Surrounded!’ rose up from the Federal ranks.Many of the Union troops wanted to surrender. Grant 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.’ McClernand ordered the Chicago Battery onto a rise, and it blasted away with double shot and canister. A volley from Logan’s muskets followed, which one Confederate described as a ‘blast of fire…full in our faces, a horizontal sheet of flame and bullets that took my breath away!’ The barrage knocked a hole in Marks’ line, and Logan and the 31st Illinois dashed through the breach. The remaining troops quickly followed, the Rebels hard on their heels.
Fighting their way back to the landing, the men stopped to fire at the pursuing Confederates. When they finally started to board the transports, the Rebels fired at them from the forest’s edge. Grant had ridden back to the little hollow where he had placed the rear guard, only to find that they had already left, withdrawing to the transports with the rest of the army. Grant went alone to check on the enemy’s progress. Wearing a normal soldier’s overcoat, he rode his horse into a cornfield. Suddenly, Confederate troops appeared only 50 yards away. Camouflaged by the tall, leafy cornstalks, he slowly turned around and walked his horse away. Once at a safe distance, he began to gallop as fast as he could back to the landing. Later he learned that Polk had spotted him in the cornfield and invited his marksmen to take a shot. Not recognizing Grant as the opposing general, none of the marksmen took him up on the offer, missing an opportunity that might well have changed the outcome of the war.
By the time Grant reached the river, the sun was starting to set. The continuing enemy fire had forced the boats to launch while Grant remained on shore. As they floated away, a plank was extended from Belle Memphis onto the riverbank. Grant’s horse slid down the muddy bank on its hindquarters, stepped onto the plank and trotted on board. With the last and most important Union soldier safely aboard, the transports left Missouri. Grant called in the gunboats to silence the Rebels on the shore. With grapeshot, canister and five-second shells, Tyler and Lexington sent the enemy soldiers fleeing straight into the woods.
At one point Grant, who had been lying on a couch in the captain’s room, rose and went on deck to observe the activity. While he was on deck, a bullet penetrated the wooden ship and hit the couch in the exact spot where his head had rested minutes earlier.As night fell, the flotilla made its way upriver, stopping at Bird’s Point to pick up Buford’s cavalry squadron, which had completely circumvented the second half of the battle and wandered up the Missouri shore. More than 600 casualties were suffered by each side, with many wounded Federal soldiers left on the field during the hasty withdrawal; 175 Confederates were taken prisoner, and two guns were captured.Both Polk and Grant claimed victory, though neither side had gained any strategic advantage. The Columbus bluffs soon became irrelevant, outflanked in February 1862 by Grant’s capture of Forts Henry and Donelson. That same month the Confederates left Columbus. A month later, Union troops moved in.
One Northern commentator claimed that, in attacking Belmont, Grant had only’stirred up the hornets, and then ran as fast as his legs could carry him, stung at every step.’But Grant’s men had learned lessons at Belmont that could only be taught by experience. They were now veteran troops–the core of an army that would eventually capture Vicksburg, Miss., and win complete victory in the west.Belmont was also a turning point for Ulysses Grant. After his undistinguished service in the Mexican War and the 13 uneventful years that followed, Grant had finally commanded troops in battle. In his memoirs he wrote, ‘The National troops acquired a confidence in themselves at Belmont that did not desert them through the war.’ This observation might equally apply to the commanding general himself.
This article was written by Max Epstein and originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!