Written By: CSM James Clifford, USA-Ret.
During the first months of the Civil War, few things went right for the Union Army. Fort Sumter fell, federal troops were defeated at Bull Run, and BG Nathaniel Lyons was killed in the debacle of Wilson’s Creek. Only in the mountains of western Virginia did Union troops under MG George B. McClellan achieve any success. On 28 August 1861, BG Ulysses S. Grant took command of the federal troops in southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois, and the adjacent areas of Kentucky. Kentucky was still claiming to be neutral, a position that many Union men felt favored the Confederacy.
Grant, a West Point-trained, former Army captain and veteran of the Mexican War, was working in his father’s tannery at the outbreak of the Civil War. Returning to the Army first as a regimental commander, and then as a district commander, his superior was the famous explorer and politician, MG John C. Frémont, commander of the Department of the West.
Grant’s headquarters was situated in an old bank building in Cairo, Illinois’ most southern city. From his office window, Grant could see the gunboats and transports docked where the Ohio River flowed into the Mississippi.
The headquarters was known as a place of quiet professionalism where staff officers attended to the business of commanding upwards of 20,000 soldiers. Frémont was most interested in ridding Missouri of the Confederate guerrilla leader, M. Jeff Thompson, while Grant was more interested in the activities within Kentucky. As of yet, Kentucky was unoccupied by either side, but it was just a matter of time, for control of Kentucky would virtually guarantee domination of the West.
The key to Kentucky was Columbus, situated in the western edge of the state on the Mississippi River. Just across the Mississippi from Columbus was the hamlet of Belmont, Missouri, a nondescript tract of low farmland with no more than three houses. The only importance of this area was its proximity to Columbus and the roads leading from the landing to Charleston, twelve miles inland, and New Madrid, 300 miles south. On 1 September 1861, Grant ordered troops to the area to occupy Belmont.
A few troops did go to Belmont, but the operation was aborted because of a dispute over dates of rank with BG Benjamin M. Prentiss and pessimistic reports of Confederate naval strength on the river. The Confederate commander in the area, MG Leonidas Polk, a West Point graduate who forsook a military career to become an Episcopal priest and bishop, correctly interpreted that the Union goal was to ultimately occupy Kentucky. He preempted the Union by ordering Confederate BG Gideon Pillow to seize Columbus on 4 September. For the rest of September and October the opposing forces worked to solidify their positions. For his part, Polk fortified the Columbus bluffs with 154 guns.
On 1 November, Frémont ordered Grant to make moves on both sides of the Mississippi near Columbus. The essential element of this order was that Grant was not to engage the enemy, as Frémont’s goal was to distract the Confederates from other operations in southeast Missouri. Grant organized a 3,000-man task force under COL Richard James Oglesby consisting of Oglesby’s 8th Illinois Volunteer Regiment, three other regiments, three companies of cavalry, and a section of artillery. Olglesby was sent towards the Saint Francis River, approximately fifty miles southwest of Cairo, with orders to chase down and destroy the rebels if he felt he had sufficient force to do so.
On 5 November, Grant received word that the Rebels were about to send reinforcements into Missouri. In response, he dispatched a regiment under COL W.H.L. Wallace to reinforce Oglesby, while on the same day, Frémont ordered him to make demonstrations near Columbus. Grant immediately ordered BG C.F. Smith to move his troops from Paducah, Kentucky, towards Columbus.
Smith was to stop a few miles outside of town and await instructions. On the same afternoon, he embarked a force of two brigades under the commands of BG John A. McClernand and COL Henry Dougherty, consisting of five infantry regiments, two cavalry companies, and two field guns—3,000 men in all—for a move south on the Mississippi. Shortly after issuing these orders, Frémont was relieved of his command after he refused President Abraham Lincoln’s orders to rescind his declaration of martial law in Missouri.
Grant’s flotilla, consisting of transports and two escorting gunboats, was assembled in secret. In addition to the enemy, Grant had to battle the soldiers’ other ever-present enemies, boredom and dissension. Throughout October, the soldiers had grown restless and were openly talking of desertion and criticizing the Union war effort in their camps. As the men were being loaded onto the transports, they broke into wild cheering. When they were issued two days rations, their boredom dissipated with the anticipation of finally striking the Rebels.
The transformation was immediate even though there were still no orders to attack. On the night of 6 November, the flotilla was anchored on the river several miles above Columbus. Grant had no intention of attacking the Rebels at that time, but he noted that his men were spoiling for a fight. He knew that if he failed to give them one it would certainly hurt morale and discipline. Just at that time, Grant learned that Polk had ordered Pillow to cross the Mississippi with a force to occupy Belmont. He knew Pillow from the Mexican War and had little respect for him.
At 0200, 7 November, certain that he could beat Pillow, and fearing for Oglesby’s safety, he issued the orders for his first offensive of the Civil War. His intent was to occupy Belmont, push the rebels out, protect Oglesby, and return to Cairo. These modest goals would accomplish little militarily, but it would provide some training for his inexperienced troops and send a message to the Confederates that he would not shrink from a fight.
The action that followed brought Grant controversy and criticism, but that action also established his reputation as a fighter. At 0800, Grant’s troops landed in Missouri a few miles above Belmont at Hunter’s Farm, a spot selected by Grant’s senior naval officer, CAPT Henry Walke. Most of the area was thickly wooded except for the landing, which was at a cornfield, with corn higher than a man on horseback and ripe for harvesting. As the troops disembarked from the transports, Grant deployed five companies to guard the landing and transports.
He positioned them in a slough, a dry, low-lying hollow, near the river with instructions to remain in that position until relieved. The gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington moved downstream to engage the land batteries on the bluffs of Columbus that covered Belmont.
Throughout the day these gunboats made three passes on those batteries. On each pass, the ships fired at the Columbus batteries and received fire without any visible effect until the third pass when a Confederate shell struck the Tyler, wounding two sailors and decapitating a third. On land, Grant led his troops south under a warm Indian summer sun, down a farm lane through woods and cornfields towards Camp Johnston, the Confederate encampment at Belmont. The camp, named in honor of the senior Confederate general in the West, Albert Sidney Johnston, rested on a bend in the river, well within range of the Columbus batteries only 800 yards across the river. 2,500 Confederates, about equal in number to the attacking Federals, were present that morning.
One mile from Belmont, Grant deployed his forces on line, McClernand to the right and Dougherty to the left. The untried troops practiced this deployment maneuver on the parade grounds back in Cairo, but observers would not have guessed that on this day as the soldiers eventually formed the proper alignment. It was not quite according to regulations, but soon the lines of battle extended nearly three quarters of a mile.
What they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm—Grant’s men were clearly itching for a fight. The actions of COL John “Black Jack” Logan, commanding the 31st Illinois, is illustrative. As the troops in blue moved forward through the woods near Belmont, Logan rode his horse in front of his formation, which was drifting to the right and obstructing the line of march of the 27th Illinois, commanded by Kentuckian COL Napoleon B. Buford. Piqued over the assault on his prerogative, Buford rode beside Logan and chastised him: “Colonel Logan, remember, if you please, that I have the position of honor!”
Logan showed that he could not have cared less about any position of honor by responding, “I don’t care a damn where I am, so long as I get into this fight!” He was not to be disappointed—the Rebels at Camp Johnston soon figured out what Grant was up to and sent troops out to meet the advancing Federals. Initially, Rebels of the 13th Arkansas and 12th Tennessee engaged the Federals with a hot fire that was returned with equal vigor. At one point, Grant had to rein in the enthusiasm lest the Union troops run out of ammunition.
This was good advice because the Rebels quickly ran low on ammunition. After a short but intense fight, the Confederates were pushed out of their camp to the riverbank behind them, leaving several casualties behind.
The early fighting at Belmont might have ended Grant’s life and changed the course of history had he moved just a few inches one way or the other. As was to become his custom, Grant rode to the sound of the guns, and in the process, lost both his horse and an expensive saddle when a near miss brought the horse down under him.
Soon he was remounted, but he would have other close calls this day and throughout the rest of the Civil War. Just as soon as the Union soldiers gained control of Camp Johnston, discipline broke down. The entire command was gripped in the frenzy of wild celebrating. Enlisted soldiers and officers alike looted the camp while the apparently defeated Confederate soldiers milled about the riverbank nearby. Even one of the Union brigade commanders was overwhelmed by the moment. McClernand, a Lincoln associate and political appointee, took the opportunity to make an impromptu speech that one witness dubbed a “spread-eagle speech on the evils of the rebellion and the virtues of the Union.”
Later, McClernand would explain the events saying the he merely called for cheers for the Union, which were enthusiastically offered by the troops. At the same time, a Confederate flag was paraded through the camp and the 22d Illinois band played such favorites as Yankee Doodle and Stars and Stripes. Troops that were not celebrating were busy souvenir hunting among whatever was not already put to the torch. Soon it would be the Federals’ turn to be surprised.
As soon as Polk heard of Grant’s landing, he assembled reinforcements to cross the river and alerted his batteries to prepare to support the counterattack. At about the same time that the battle was beginning, Confederate reinforcements, numbering about 500, were heading towards a point on the Missouri shore about one mile north of Belmont, which put the Rebels between the Union troops and their transports. Polk could have sent more of his estimated 10,000 available troops, but he was concerned that the attack on Belmont was merely a feint to disguise an attack on Columbus itself.
More reinforcements were sent in a second wave as soon as he was certain that no attack on Columbus was imminent. So while the Federals celebrated, the Rebels organized a counterattack. The Confederates who were pushed out of Camp Johnston joined the reinforcements by moving north, unseen by the Federals along the riverbank, to link up with their comrades. Ultimately, according to Grant, his Union force of 2,500 (not counting those left guarding the transports) engaged a Confederate force totaling 7,000 (including those that reinforced the Belmont garrison).
Grant ascertained that he was about to be attacked when his attention was brought to the telltale plumes of smoke rising over the trees to the north. These plumes could only mean the arrival of the second wave of reinforcements. To quickly restore discipline to his troops, he ordered the Confederate tents set afire just as the Rebels burst from the trees. Union troops began to panic as shells from Columbus began to fall on the camp. Despite the turn of the tables, Grant kept a clear head.
Even though a Louisiana regiment had cut the road leading back to Hunter’s Farm, Grant dismissed any suggestion of surrender. Grant later explained that “At first some of the officers seemed to think that to be surrounded was to be placed in a hopeless position, where there was nothing to do but surrender. But when I 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.” His coolness under fire that was to become a well-known hallmark of his character propped up the courage of the Federals. Rather than run or surrender, they began to absorb and repel the counterattack.
With minimal loss, the Union troops fought through the Rebels and moved towards their transports. It was a retreat but not a rout. Even though several soldiers lightened their loads by throwing away their rifles and various pieces of equipment, others added to their burden by assisting wounded comrades ensuring that they made it to safety. The Union columns made it back to the boat landing virtually intact. Under the covering fire of the gunboats, the Federals reboarded their transports.
The men made it onboard with relative ease, but getting cannons back aboard was a bit of a chore. One of the steamboat captains made matters worse by failing to keep his vessel intact with the shoreline. “Black Jack” Logan stiffened the captain’s spine by putting the barrel of a borrowed pistol to his head with the threat that his brains would be splattered about the helm if the boat was not stabilized. Miraculously the steamboat stabilized enough to be loaded before it pushed back into the channel of the Mississippi River. Only the 27th Illinois and some wounded were left behind. The Illinois regiment marched further north uncontested and boarded transports later that night. Most of the wounded were repatriated in the weeks following the battle.
Grant was the last Union soldier left on the field. When the Union troops arrived at the boat landing, they found that the five companies left behind as a rear guard had gotten confused or afraid. They were already aboard transports and had moved out on the Mississippi. On a borrowed horse, Grant moved throughout the landing ensuring that stragglers and wounded were not left behind. With all the other transports heading toward the channel, he approached the riverbank just as the final vessel cut its lines. As it began to drift back Grant urged his borrowed horse to slide down the bank and gingerly walk across a single plank directly onto the deck of the ship.
Once aboard, Grant briefly reclined for a few moments on a sofa in the captain’s cabin. The level of the Mississippi River at that time of year was so low that those on the top decks of the steamers could not see above the banks of the river. As a consequence, the steamers were in little danger from Confederate fire as they moved into the channel even though the stacks and superstructures were riddled with bullets. As Grant arose, a rebel bullet sliced through the cabin and the sofa at the very spot his head had just been. Grant narrowly escaped death for the third time that day. The first had been early in the battle when he lost his horse and saddle he was unaware of the second until several days later when he learned that Confederate soldiers had had him in their sights.
On a trip down river to arrange the return of wounded and prisoners, a Confederate staff officer told Grant that Polk had crossed the river to direct the pursuit of the Federals. Polk saw an unidentified Union officer riding toward the boat landing and urged his men to test their marksmanship on this target of opportunity. For unknown reasons, no Confederate took up Polk’s offer. In the discussion, the Rebels described to Grant his horse and clothing. This convinced Grant that he was truly a target that day.
Despite the retreat from Belmont spirits were high among the Union troops aboard the transports heading north. The men believe that they had won a great victory that day. Officers sitting down to dinner in the ladies cabin briskly discussed the day’s events. Grant did not take part in these discussions. Remaining subdued, he hardly said a word except to the waiter. One officer noted that to some Grant appeared to be hard-hearted, cold, and indifferent. His men did not know him very well then, but they would soon understand that Grant’s demeanor was that of a professional soldier.
At the end of the day, both sides claimed victory. Losses were about equal with the Union losing about 485 men; Confederate losses numbered 640 men killed, wounded, or missing. Grant informed the War Department that he advanced in a reconnaissance towards Columbus to protect his columns on southeast Missouri. In another report, he notified St. Louis that he had secured a complete victory. In neither report did he mention the looting or the near disaster that occurred. Grant credited his soldiers with conduct like that of seasoned veterans although they were under fire for the first time. On 8 November, he issued a congratulatory order to his men for their performance. As later battles eclipsed Belmont in intensity and effect, he seldom repeated this.
In the aftermath, as details of the battle leaked out, Grant became the target of criticism for getting into a meaningless fight. Nevertheless, Grant thought that the fight was worthwhile. Although the battle did not accomplish the first two goals of ridding Missouri or Columbus, Kentucky, of rebel forces, it did provide his troops with much needed combat experience. The Confederates also claimed, with good reason, to have won a great victory. They lost Belmont briefly, but they re-took it and drove the Union troops back north; the invader had been repulsed.
Polk admitted to heavy losses in his 8 November report to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but he claimed to have killed four to five hundred Federals, including Grant himself. In response to Polk’s report, the Confederate Congress quickly passed a resolution commending Polk, his commanders, and his troops for their service rendered. The civilian populous was so impressed with the outcome that a Confederate song called Belmont Fast Trot poking fun at the retreating Federals was briefly popular. Naturally, Northern leaders scoffed at the idea that Belmont was a Confederate victory. “Black Jack” Logan attested, “If this were a Confederate victory, there could scarcely be too many of them.”
Logan was also of the same mind as Grant regarding the effect the battle had on Union troops. Later he wrote that the battle “inspired confidence in their own abilities as soldiers, as well as in the skill of their officers. It taught a lesson concerning the value of discipline which our men remembered and repeated to others upon almost every subsequent battle-field.” Grant may not have admitted to any mistakes in the various reports, but he must have been troubled somewhat. Several weeks later he ordered COL Oglesby, who had returned right after the battle, to search for any captured property held by his troops and to arrest any who still possessed these items.
Clearly he was concerned about his troops’ poor discipline following their capture of Camp Johnston. Whatever misgivings Grant may have had, they were not enough to cause him to correct or adjust his reports. In fact, he rewrote the report in 1865 and later mentioned it in his memoirs, in which he further justified the attacks. In neither place did he acknowledge mistakes on the part of himself or his troops.
Was Belmont a Union victory or defeat? Was it a battle or a raid?
These questions have been asked since that day in 1861. The answers depend on whether one looks at the event singularly or as part of the overall development of the Civil War’s greatest general and the armies he led. One can view Belmont as a nearly disastrous and meaningless defeat. Grant proceeded without orders, taking his troops into an area that could not be held due to the guns on the bluffs of Columbus.
He claimed that he did so to protect Oglesby, but that is hardly credible. Oglesby was moving away from the Mississippi, was being reinforced by Wallace, and was under no threat from Polk. In fact, it was Oglesby who when notified of the Union repulse, returned to Cairo to support Grant without obstruction from the Confederates.
Grant’s tactical errors at Belmont were many. Once again, a narrow view of events tends to make Belmont look like a series of mistakes and blunders. Until November 1861, Grant had never commanded more than twelve men in combat; at Belmont he commanded 3,000. His first mistake was his failure to maintain any forces in reserve. A tactical reserve could have been used to blunt the Confederate counterattack. The few companies left back at the boat landing cannot be considered the reserve forces. They were supposed to maintain and secure the landing, but they failed because Grant did not give them specific mission orders.
Without specific orders, they were susceptible to fear and confusion, so they reboarded the transports as soon as they realized that the Union forces were repulsed. It was fortunate for the Union that the inexperienced Confederates were unable to pursue the Federals more vigorously. Had they been able to do so, the entire force, minus those five companies, might have been captured at the landing.
Grant moved through a heavily wooded area with untried troops. The proper use of cavalry forces could have helped him maintain discipline during this move. Rather than being used in their traditional role as a screening force, he allowed his cavalry to move along with the main body.
As a screening force, they would have broken up the counterattack before the main forces were surprised. This would have allowed Grant to remove his force from the field intact, bringing his killed, wounded, prisoners, and captured equipment with him. Had he done that, Belmont would have gone down as a brilliantly successful raid. Finally, his inability to maintain discipline on the battlefield nearly resulted in disaster. Never again would he allow his troops to celebrate on the battlefield. Henceforth, his troops exploited their victories and guarded against counterattacks whenever possible.
Despite the many tactical errors, Grant redeemed himself that day by quickly regaining control of his troops and conducting a fighting retreat. It is here that the broader view of Belmont begins. Belmont revealed that Grant was a general willing to fight. He looked for opportunities to inflict damage on the enemy. When he saw them, he did not hesitate to strike. His experience with Confederate BG Pillow and his understanding of the morale of his troops told him that he must attack at Belmont.
Belmont gave Grant great confidence in the fighting ability of Union volunteers.
The quick defeat of the Rebels at Belmont planted the seed in Grant’s mind that Southerners’ hearts were not in the fight. This mistaken impression would stay with Grant until the Battle of Shiloh convinced him that the Civil War would be long and brutal. Union soldiers actually outfought the rebels on that day and the Confederates knew it. Official Southern battle reports and newspaper accounts credited the Federals with having many more troops than they actually had. An Illinois soldier captured during the fighting asked a Confederate if they still believed the old boast that one Southerner could beat five Yankees. “Oh,” said the Confederate, “we don’t mean you Westerners. We thought this morning when you were approaching that we never saw such big men in our lives before. You look like giants.”
Belmont was the first amphibious operation of Grant’s career. These types of operations would become very critical to Grant’s success later in the war. The gunboats Tyler and Lexington delayed Polk from reinforcing his troops, distracted the guns on the bluffs, and suppressed the Confederate pursuit. Belmont taught Grant that the Navy could be used successfully and could be trusted to cooperate with the land forces. These lessons were put in practice in later battles, most prominently at Vicksburg.
Belmont brought Grant’s name before Lincoln for the first time, albeit as a result of Grant’s own political maneuverings. Grant wrote his friend, Representative Elihu Washburne (R-IL), outlining his plan for the operation before the battle actually occurred. Careful to include moderate praise for his fellow Illinois officers, McClernand and Wallace, he let Washburne know that if the operation was successful, all should know that it was Grant who led it. After the battle, Washburne forwarded the letter to Lincoln with the advice, “I want you to take a moment’s time to read this letter of General Grant.” With that Grant’s star began to rise. The true impact of the battle must be evaluated not by looking at its strategic or tactical value, but by appreciating its value as a training vehicle for an untried general and his untried troops. In this respect the operation was highly successful.
Many of the officers went on to significant accomplishment later in the war. COL Napoleon Buford rose to brevet major general and would participate in fighting at Corinth and Vicksburg. COL Jacob Lauman would become a division commander and see combat at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Jackson, and Vicksburg. COL John “Black Jack” Logan would rise to brigade, division, and corps command under Grant and MG William Tecumseh. Logan would go down in history as the best political general of the entire Civil War. John McClernand would rise to the rank of major general and become a corps commander before being relieved by Grant after unsuccessfully scheming against him.
CPT Ezra Taylor, commander of the Chicago Light Battery at Belmont, would fight at Shiloh and Vicksburg. He later became the chief of artillery for Sherman and then MG James B. McPherson. Grant and these officers exhibited the personal courage under fire that was essential to successful Civil War leadership. Belmont provided these and many others with the opportunity to develop their leadership and have their first experiences under fire. Belmont was one of the earliest battles of the war. In previous wars, the regiment was the largest tactical element. At Belmont several regiments, formed into brigades, had to operate together. These regiments operated almost independently, but the leadership saw that this would have to change as future Civil War battles grew in size and intensity. Belmont was the proving ground of brigade level operations.
Although they may be said to have failed, important lessons were learned. Grant’s thrust at Belmont also had an affect on Confederate decision making. Because of Belmont, Polk’s attention was firmly on the Mississippi. Other federal avenues of advance were not considered. When Grant moved down the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Polk refused to send reinforcements to threatened areas in fear that the Mississippi was the true target. Grant’s earlier described refusal to categorize Belmont as a defeat may have been a mechanism to ensure that his troops gained confidence. It was something he did throughout the war. Rather than dwell on the negative aspects of action, he played up the courage and determination of the soldiers.
This told the soldiers that their leader had confidence in them and, in turn, enhanced the self-confidence of the soldiers. Grant did the same thing after Fort Donelson. There he defined the operation as a success, deciding not to look on the escape of so many enemy troops as a failure.
After the first day at Shiloh, he again refused to acknowledge defeat and turned the disaster into a great Union victory the very next day. The answer to the question of whether Belmont should be considered a Union success or failure depends on one’s point of view. Tactically it was a near disaster. But upon closer examination, it must be regarded as a positive step for the Union Army in the West and a vital character building exercise for the general who would eventually lead the Union to victory.