Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal District of Southeastern Missouri, had received word that Confederates at Columbus, Kentucky, were preparing to cross the Mississippi River and reinforce their Missouri comrades. Grant determined to stop this by sending two forces to threaten Confederates at Columbus and southern Missouri, while he led a third force in an advance on Belmont, a hamlet across the Mississippi from Columbus.
Major General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederates in western Kentucky, had a force of about 2,700 men at Belmont under Brigadier General Gideon Pillow. Unbeknownst to Grant, Pillow had been ordered to abandon Belmont and head east to Clarksville, Tennessee. When Polk learned of Grant’s movement, he believed that it was just a feint, with the true attack coming against Columbus. He therefore sent no reinforcements to Belmont.
Grant moved down the Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois, with 3,114 men. They were escorted by the gunboats U.S.S. Lexington and Tyler. Around 8 a.m. on the 7th, they landed at Hunter’s Farm, about three miles above Belmont. They were concealed by woods and out of range of the Confederate batteries across the Mississippi at Columbus. The gunboats continued downriver to provide artillery support. The troops cut through the dense underbrush as they moved southward on the road leading to Belmont. They formed a line of battle about a mile north of town. Pillow, whose troops had begun heading toward Clarksville, hurriedly formed a defense line in the face of the oncoming enemy.
Confederate artillery from the Columbus bluffs fired on the Federals as they approached and attacked Pillow’s right anchored on the Mississippi, and his center. The Confederates held firm until their ammunition ran low. Pillow ordered a bayonet charge, but only some of the men complied, and their line quickly collapsed. The Confederates fled, leaving the Federals in possession of their abandoned camps. Grant, with no wagons to collect captured supplies, directed that captured soldiers, horses, and cannons be put on the transports while equipment and supplies were burned. But Grant noted that his men were “demoralized from their victory,” and they looted the camps while officers delivered patriotic speeches and bands played “Yankee Doodle.”
Meanwhile, Polk landed reinforcements from Columbus between the Federals and their transports. With their line of retreat cut off, some officers suggested surrender. Grant replied that “we had to cut our way in and could cut our way out just as well.” The Federals fought their way through the enemy forces and hurried back to their transports. Grant, who already had a horse shot from under him, had his new horse start at a walk to defy the Confederates, but once he entered the woods, he rode “as fast as my horse could carry me.” Grant was the last to board, leaving his dead and wounded behind.
The Lexington and Tyler provided covering fire as the troops boarded the vessels and returned north. Each side lost about a quarter of their total, with Federals sustaining 607 casualties (120 killed, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing) and Confederates losing 641 (105 killed, 419 wounded, and 117 captured or missing). Polk reported to Confederate Jefferson Davis that the battle had been a “complete rout,” in which his men had been “immortalized by gallant killing in the face of being themselves killed.” Polk added incorrectly, “General Grant is reported killed.”
Grant’s men returned to Belmont the next day under a flag of truce to collect the dead and wounded. Some officers’ wives searched for their missing husbands. Polk quickly learned that Grant was not dead when he invited Polk aboard the Federal headquarters boat. Polk accepted, and Grant offered to turn over some wounded Confederate troops that had been captured. Polk responded that “my Government requires all prisoners to be placed at the disposal of the Secretary of War.”
Confederates considered this engagement a victory because they had driven the Federals off. One reported that Grant “fled the field, virtually abandoning one of his regiments, leaving his dead and wounded, a large preponderance of prisoners, a stand of colors, 1,000 stands of arms, and the caissons of his battery at the hands of the Confederates.”
Pillow reported that his “small Spartan army” had withstood an attack from a force three times its size with impressive gallantry. General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater, announced: “This was no ordinary shock of arms; it was a long and trying contest, in which our troops fought by detachments, and always against superior numbers. The 7th of November will fill a bright page in our military annals, and be remembered with gratitude by the sons and daughters of the South.”
Some northerners tended to agree. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune lamented the perceived defeat at Belmont: “The disastrous termination of the Cairo expedition to Columbus is another severe lesson on the management of this contest with the rebels. Our troops have suffered a bad defeat… The rebels have been elated and emboldened while our troops have been depressed, if not discouraged.” A dispatch from the St. Louis Sunday Republican stated, “We have met the enemy and they are not ours.”
In his official report, Grant declared, “The victory is complete.” He later wrote that because of Belmont, “The enemy gave up all idea of detaching troops from Columbus.” Perhaps more importantly, “The National troops acquired a confidence in themselves at Belmont that did not desert them through the war.” This was the first step toward turning his green soldiers into battle-hardened veterans, and Grant proclaimed to the men:
“The general commanding this military district, returns his thanks to the troops under his command at the battle of Belmont yesterday… Such courage will insure victory wherever our flag may be borne and protected by such a class of men. To the many brave men who fell the sympathy of the country is due, and will be manifested in a manner unmistakable.”
In reality, this engagement gained nothing for either side. However, the role played by the Lexington and Tyler in protecting the Federal escape demonstrated the importance that naval gunboats would have in future engagements on the western rivers. And despite Grant’s questionable performance, this proved for the first time that he would fight when other generals would not.
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