The Battle of Belmont, Missouri is an often overlooked battle. While the number of casualties were modest, compared to subsequent battles in the western theater, it was newly commissioned Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s first battle as an independent commander. While the battle was nearly disastrous for his troops, Grant clearly demonstrated his ability to quickly respond to changing battlefield circumstances and act quickly to preserve his troops and salvage victory from disaster. This maturation as an independent commander would serve him well at the battles of Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, in the coming new year. At both battles, Grant would find himself separated from the fighting and return to chaos. In both cases he would take advantage of the confusion the Confederate forces experienced after an initial success, and snare victory from defeat. At Fort Donelson he would capture an entire army.
The following narrative is from my other Civil War website, BattlefieldPortraits.com.
For a complete photographic essay, on the Battle of Belmont, visit my Flickr site by clicking HERE.
Battle of Belmont
Location: Belmont, MO
Date: November 7, 1861
Union Commander: Ulysses S. Grant, Brigadier General
Confederate Commander: Gideon J. Pillow, Brigadier General
Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to brigadier general on August 7, 1861. His first assignment would be to command the garrison at Cairo, Illinois – the junction of the Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers.
CSA Major General Leonidas Polk commanded Department No. 2 of CSA General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Western Department. In September 1861 Polk’s Confederate detachment occupied Columbus, Kentucky building an impressive fort that commanded the Mississippi River from the high bluffs. Considered by many to be the “Gibraltar of the West,” the fort was very impressive. Polk had 17,000 Confederate troops and close to 150 heavy guns under his command. With the incursion of Polk’s Confederates into the neutral state of Kentucky, Grant quickly positioned himself as a liberator of the state when he entered Paducah, in a bloodless affair.
Grant would quickly have an opportunity to prove himself as an independent commander. Holding garrisons at Cape Girardeau, Cairo and Paducah he set his sights on Columbus, Kentucky. Aware that CSA Brigadier General Meriwether “Jeff” Thompson was on the run in the “boot heel” area of Missouri, Grant formulated his strategy. He would send two columns of troops from Cairo, and Paducah, to demonstrate against Columbus, while he would command the main attack force of 3,000 troops going downriver, to the Belmont area, to stop Thompson.
On November 7, Grant’s troops disembarked at Hunter Farm marching back east to the Confederate encampment at Belmont. With his troops hidden in the woods, he prepared to attack Camp Johnston. There awaiting him were CSA Brigadier General Gideon Pillow’s Confederate detachment. Grant would move through a cornfield to attack Pillow. The Confederates would counter with a terrific bayonet charge. Pillow’s position was untenable and the entire Rebel line would collapse.
Excited with their win, the Federal troops quickly went about looting the camp. Leonidas Polk observing the collapse of Camp Johnston dispatched two infantry regiments, under the command of CSA Brigadier General Frank Cheatham. After arriving from Columbus, Cheatham would unite with the disorganized remnants of Pillow’s troops. Once Pillow was reinforced by Cheatham, Polk unleashed the river guns in Columbus. Federal troops quickly were caught in a crossfire from the big siege guns of Columbus, and a surprise flank attack by Cheatham. Quickly surrounded, the Union line collapsed. Grant would finally bring some order to his lines and fight his way out. The Federal troops marched back to Hunter Farm, all the while being harrassed by the Confederates, and would make their escape aboard the USS Tyler gunboat. U.S. Grant would be the last soldier to embark on the gunboat.
Campaign: Grant’s Campaign of the Confluence of the Ohio & Mississippi Rivers – 1861
Outcome: U.S. Victory
Troop Strengths (estimated):
Union: 498 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 966 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Belmont was U.S. Grant’s first battle as a general officer. While technically not a complete victory, it did prove Grant thrived under pressure. After returning to Cairo, Grant set his eyes on other targets – the forts on the Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers. Learning that Fort Henry was lightly defended, Grant received permission from his commander, Henry W. Halleck, to attack the fort. Fort Henry would be captured by Grant on February 6, 1862, with Fort Donelson falling on February 16, 1862. These were stunning Union victories that launched Grant into celebrity status.
With the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, department commander, CSA General Albert Sidney Johnston would determine his position in Kentucky was untenable. Johnston would retreat from Kentucky, through Tennessee, consolidating his army near Corinth, Mississippi. With this retreat, Nashville, and Memphis, would remain in Union possession for the remainder of the war.