As November began, rumors swirled that Confederate forces at Columbus, Kentucky, would cross the Mississippi River and reinforce the secessionist State Guards in southwestern Missouri. In response, Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West from St. Louis, issued orders to Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the District of Southeastern Missouri from Cairo, Illinois:
“You are hereby directed to hold your whole command ready to march at an hour’s notice, until further orders, and you will take particular care to be amply supplied with transportation and ammunition. You are also directed to make demonstrations with your troops along both sides of the river towards Charleston, Norfolk, and Blandville, and to keep your columns constantly moving back and forward against these places without, however, attacking the enemy.”
Fremont hoped that by demonstrating on both sides of the Mississippi, Grant would force the Confederates at Columbus to stay within their defenses. At the same time, Brigadier General C.F. Smith’s Federals at Paducah, Kentucky, were to feint toward Columbus to make the threat more fearsome.
Meanwhile, a contingent of about 3,000 Missouri State Guards under Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson operated in southeastern Missouri, and were supposedly camped near the Missouri boot heel on the St. Francis River, about 50 miles southwest of Cairo. Thompson, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox,” had been troublesome for the Federals in the region, and Fremont sent a force south from Pilot Knob to confront him. He also ordered Grant to send one force southwest from Cape Girardeau and a second force west from Bird’s Point. These two forces were to help “in driving Thompson into Arkansas.”
Grant complied and instructed his commanders: “The object of the expedition is to destroy this force and the manner of doing it is left largely at your discretion.” Fremont had expected Grant to help drive Thompson out of Missouri as part of the overall demonstration on the Mississippi, but Grant went further in ordering Thompson’s force destroyed. This ultimately did not happen, but it played a role in the larger goal of keeping more Confederates from entering Missouri.
Three days later, Grant supposedly received a dispatch from department headquarters that Major General Leonidas Polk, commanding at Columbus, was indeed sending Confederates down the Mississippi and up the White River to reinforce the Missouri State Guards. Grant was to demonstrate immediately against Columbus to prevent this. The dispatch was never found, but Grant later asserted that this prompted him to hurry preparations for the demonstration. Grant also ordered Colonel Richard J. Oglesby, commanding part of the forces heading to confront Thompson, to move toward New Madrid and, once he found an accessible path to Columbus, “communicate with me at Belmont.”
Grant would assemble all his remaining available forces and lead the main demonstration himself. The target would be the hamlet of Belmont, where Polk had 2,700 Confederates under Brigadier General Gideon Pillow. Contrary to Federal concerns, Pillow had been ordered to leave Belmont and move east to Clarksville, Tennessee, and Polk had no intention of sending more Confederates into Missouri. But that did not stop Grant’s determination to destroy Pillow’s force.
On November 6, Grant loaded 3,114 troops–five infantry regiments, two cavalry companies, and a six-gun battery–onto four transports escorted by two sidewheel steamers that the War Department had converted into wooden gunboats, the U.S.S. Lexington and Tyler. Grant directed General Smith at Paducah to demonstrate against Columbus while Grant prepared to “menace Belmont.” This would therefore be a three-pronged southward movement with Oglesby’s force to the west, Smith’s to the east, and Grant’s in the center.
Grant’s convoy steamed downriver under cover of growing darkness before stopping for the night on the eastern (Kentucky) bank, about nine miles below Cairo and six miles above Belmont. Pillow, who was preparing for the move to Clarksville, had no idea that enemy forces were approaching. When Polk learned of the movement, he believed that Grant would target Columbus and only feint against Belmont. He therefore kept the bulk of his force at Columbus.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
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