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Battle of Belmont
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Battle of Belmont
Perhaps most famous as Ulysses S. Grant's first battle, Belmont, Missouri was little more than a ferry landing with a small general store and a mill nearby in 1861. It did have a Confederate camp with a small garrison under the command of Colonel James Tappen and an artillery battery under Lieutenant Colonel Beltzhoover. When word reached Leonidas Polk that a force of Union soldiers left Cairo on transports, the Western Confederate commander ordered Gideon Pillow across the Mississippi with roughly half the garrison from Columbus, Kentucky. The Battle of Belmont ensued.
When Leonidas Polk (called "The Bishop" by just about everybody) seized Columbus, Kentucky, on September 4, 1861, Ulysses S. Grant advanced his headquarters from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Cairo, Illinois, about 30 miles downriver on the Mississippi and just north of the river's confluence with the Ohio. On September 6, 1861, Grant surprised just about everyone by seizing Paducah, Kentucky in response to Polk's action.
That September and October small armies maneuvered in Missouri and Grant's commander, John C. Fremont, proved to be a better explorer than he was a general. The largest battle, at Wilson's Creek, saw the death of Nathaniel Lyon, which some northerners blamed on Fremont, especially in Congress. Then Fremont issued a decree that could be interpreted as freeing the slaves in his department. Lincoln ordered him to rescind the order.
It was at this time that Grant decided to make a bold move against the Confederates, not because of any strategic offensive advantage, but because of command changes he felt were about to happen. He viewed his command of the Mississippi River as threatened, and said as much in a letter to his wife. He had an excellent assignment and there were many higher ranking generals "that have commands inferior to mine for me to retain it."
The war had not been going as well as expected for the North. Early victories in Western Virginia were offset by Bull Run and the disaster at Ball's Bluff. The North was hungry for a victory. George McClellan replaced Winfield Scott as General-in-Chief, U. S. Army on November 1, 1861. McClellan and Grant had a history going back to 1854 when McClellan reported Grant's drinking on duty. Additionally, when Grant went to see McClellan in search of a command the new General Commanding had refused to meet him.
On November 2, 1861 Abraham Lincoln removed Fremont and McClellan removed his senior officers from command of the Department of the West. Command devolved to David Hunter and the Department was to be broken up into several smaller departments. It was time for Grant to act before a new commander arrived. A short time before being relieved, Fremont ordered Grant to "demonstrate" against Polk's Confederates in Columbus to stop The Bishop from reinforcing Confederate General Jeff Thompson in Missouri.
Grant sent orders for an operation to the commander of the Union forces in Paducah, Brigadier General Charles Ferguson Smith. The former West Point instructor was ordered to move south. To augment Polk's belief that the overall objective of the mission was Columbus, Kentucky, Grant landed a small force on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River.
On the Kentucky side of the Mississippi River bluffs rise some three hundred feet. General Polk placed three cannon, a ten-pounder, an eleven-pounder and the "Lady Polk," a massive Columbiad, atop these bluffs. As Grant's force approached the location of the intended landing, the Confederate guns opened fire and the Union gunboats replied. Aware of a force of federals moving on Jeff Thompson's position at New Madrid, Leonidas Polk felt this advance indicated a general attack on Confederate positions...exactly what "Sam" Grant wanted him to believe.
The main Union force, led by the gunboats Tyler and Lexington, moved south along the west bank of the Mississippi River. The Yankees landed less than three miles from the Confederate camp early in the morning of November 7. Grant's first boat tied up near Hunter's Farm around 8:00 am and his men were moving inland at 8:15. Almost immediately, they were spotted by a Mississippi cavalryman out foraging. Within minutes he alerted the Rebels at Camp Johnston. In his official report Grant said the landing site was "just out of range of the rebel batteries at Columbus," however men on the transport, including surgeon Jacob Brinton, reported that shot passed over their heads and landed on the Missouri riverbank.
Gideon Pillow crossed the Mississippi, arrived in Belmont at 9:15am and immediately sent out three companies of skirmishers. He anchored his main line on a low ridge near the river with Beltzhoover's cannon and four infantry regiments stretching to the left. Moving towards Belmont along a dirt road, Grant's forces quickly ran into Pillow's skirmishers and the Union forces formed a battle line about two miles from the Confederate camp.
In front of the Union line lay a dry slough, then a cornfield and finally, Gid Pillow's Confederates behind a low ridge. Cavalry screened both Union flanks, but Grant's right flank was well-anchored by a pond, so he pushed those horsemen forward in an attempt to catch Pillow's flank. This failed when Pillow reinforced the line. Grant also tried to get around on Pillow's right, but this attempt was easily repulsed with the artillery. Still, the relentless advance of Grant's men pushed the Rebels back.
In his official report, Gideon Pillow claims during the fighting some of his Rebels began to run out of ammunition. Beltzhoover's battery, according to Pillow, was the first unit to fall silent, followed by another regiment and part of a third. Pillow then claims to have ordered three successive bayonet charges. According to the brigade commanders, Pillow did order a charge after about "7 or 8 rounds had been discharged." (the Confederates had been issued 40 rounds per man). The Rebels advanced, about half-way to the Union line, using fallen timber to protect themselves, then retreated.
According to Grant's report, McClernand's federals drove Pillow's Confederates back for over two miles. As the Rebels backed into their camp they broke, running for the protection of the cliffs, where they huddled for safety. They received support from the Kentucky side of the river in the form of an artillery barrage, stopping Grant's men well short of the cliff.
Meanwhile, the Union forces, many of whom were raw recruits, began looting the camp. Officers (especially McClernand) began addressing groups of soldiers, thanking them for their performance and telling them how the Union Army would win the war. Grant, according to his memoirs, was dismayed by the behavior of his officers more than the behavior of the recruits.
While the looting was occurring, Pillow's men moved along the cliffs and began forming a line between Grant and the transports. Additionally, two steamers loaded with Confederate troops were crossing the Mississippi and looked like they would land to the north of Belmont, between the Union forces and the transports. Pillow's men formed a line north of camp, and had been reinforced by a small group of Rebels under the command of Benjamin Franklin Cheatham. Leonidas Polk was crossing the river on the steamers, moving close to a division of Cheatham's men to the battle.
Suddenly, a bugle called the federals to attention. They were well-drilled and responded quickly to the call, lining up only to find out that their line of retreat had been cut. Grant expressed surprise that so many officers thought this meant defeat. Grant told the men that they had fought their way in, they would fight their way out and began to advance.
They quickly pierced the Rebel line as the reinforcements were landing. Rebels chased the retreating bluecoats, finding knapsacks, dead and wounded. They stopped at the field hospital and began moving toward the riverbank. Grant returned down the bank "a few hundred yards" to watch the reinforced Rebel infantry push towards his transports through a cornfield. Briefly emerging from a forest the enemy in the cornfield failed to spot him, but on the other side of the cornfield Bishop Polk commented to his men, "There is a
Yankee; you may try your marksmanship on him if you wish." Luckily for Grant, it was too far for any of the staff officers to take action.
Grant, barely making it back to the last transport to leave, rode his horse up the gangway. In the aftermath both Union and Confederate newspapers claimed victory (the battle is viewed as indecisive by today's historians). Gideon Pillow's actions during the battle and his inability to file an accurate report brought him under scrutiny of the Confederate high command.
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Battle of Belmont was last changed on - November 4, 2007
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