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American Civil War: Battle of Belmont

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American Civil War: Battle of Belmont

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Belmont - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Belmont was fought November 7, 1861, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

  • Brigadier General Gideon Pillow
  • approx. 5,000 men

Battle of Belmont - Background:

During the opening stages of the Civil War, the critical border state of Kentucky declared its neutrality and announced it would align opposite the first side that violated its borders. This occurred on September 3, 1861, when Confederate forces under Major General Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus, KY. Perched along a series of bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, the Confederate position at Columbus was quickly fortified and soon mounted a large number of heavy guns which commanded the river.

In response, the commander of the District of Southeast Missouri, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, dispatched forces under Brigadier General Charles F. Smith to occupy Paducah, KY on the Ohio River. Based at Cairo, IL, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Grant was eager to strike south against Columbus. Though he began requesting permission to attack in September, he received no orders from his superior, Major General John C. Frémont. In early November, Grant elected to move against the small Confederate garrison at Belmont, MO, located across the Mississippi from Columbus.

Battle of Belmont - Moving South:

To support the operation, Grant directed Smith to move southwest from Paducah as a diversion and Colonel Richard Oglesby, whose forces were in southeast Missouri, to march to New Madrid. Embarking on the night of November 6, 1861, Grant's men sailed south aboard steamers escorted by the by the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington. Consisting of four Illinois regiments, one Iowa regiment, two companies of cavalry, and six guns, Grant's command numbered over 3,000 and was divided into two brigades led by Brigadier General John A. McClernand and Colonel Henry Dougherty.

Around 11:00 PM, the Union flotilla halted for the night along the Kentucky shore. Resuming their advance in the morning, Grant's men reached Hunter's Landing, approximately three miles north of Belmont, around 8:00 AM and began disembarking. Learning of the Union landing, Polk instructed Brigadier General Gideon Pillow to cross the river with four Tennessee regiments to reinforce Colonel James Tappan's command at Camp Johnston near Belmont. Sending out cavalry scouts, Tappan deployed the bulk of his men to the northwest blocking the road from Hunter's Landing.

Battle of Belmont - The Armies Clash:

Around 9:00 AM, Pillow and the reinforcements began arriving increasing Confederate strength to around 2,700 men. Pushing forward skirmishers, Pillow formed his main defensive line northwest of the camp along a low rise in a cornfield. Marching south, Grant's men cleared the road of obstructions and drove back the enemy skirmishers. Forming for battle in a wood, his troops pressed forward and were forced to cross a small marsh before engaging Pillow's men. As the Union troops emerged from the trees, the fighting began in earnest (Map).

For around an hour, both sides sought to gain an advantage, with the Confederates holding their position. Around noon, the Union artillery finally reached the field after struggling through the wooded and marshy terrain. Opening fire, it began to turn the battle and Pillow's troops began falling back. Pressing their attacks, the Union troops slowly advanced with forces working around the Confederate left. Soon Pillow's forces were effectively pressed back to the defenses at Camp Johnston with Union troops pinning them against the river.

Mounting a final assault, the Union troops surged into the camp and drove the enemy into sheltered positions along the riverbank. Having taken the camp, discipline among the raw Union soldiers evaporated as they began plundering the camp and celebrating their victory. Describing his men as "demoralized from their victory," Grant quickly grew concerned as he saw Pillow's men slipping north into the woods and Confederate reinforcements crossing the river. These were two additional regiments which had been sent by Polk to aid in the fighting.

Battle of Belmont - The Union Escape:

Eager to restore order and having accomplished the objective of the raid, he ordered the camp set on fire. This action along with shelling from the Confederate guns at Columbus quickly shook the Union troops from their reverie. Falling into formation, the Union troops began departing Camp Johnston. To the north, the first Confederate reinforcements were landing. These were followed by Colonel Benjamin Cheatham who had been dispatched to rally the survivors. Once these men had landed, Polk crossed with two more regiments. Advancing through the woods, Cheatham's men ran into straight into Dougherty's right flank.

While Dougherty's men were under heavy fire, McClernand's found Confederate troops blocking the Hunter's Farm road. Effectively surrounded, many Union soldiers wished to surrender. Not willing to give in, Grant announced that "we had cut our way in and could cut our way out just as well." Directing his men accordingly, they soon shattered the Confederate position astride the road and conducted a fighting retreat back to Hunter's Landing. While his men boarded the transports under fire, Grant moved alone to check on his rear guard and assess the enemy's progress. In doing so, he ran into a large Confederate force and barely escaped. Racing back the landing, he found that the transports were departing. Seeing Grant, one of the steamers extended a plank, allowing the general and his horse to dash aboard.

Aftermath of the Battle of Belmont

Union losses for the Battle of Belmont numbered 120 killed, 383 wounded, and 104 captured/missing. In the fighting, Polk's command lost 105 killed, 419 wounded, and 117 captured/missing. Though Grant had achieved his objective of destroying the camp, the Confederates claimed Belmont as a victory. Small relative to the conflict's later battles, Belmont provided valuable fighting experience for Grant and his men. A formidable position, the Confederate batteries at Columbus were abandoned in early 1862 after Grant outflanked them by capturing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.

Selected Sources

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  5. Battles & Wars: 1800s
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  7. Civil War in the West
  8. American Civil War: Battle of Belmont

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