The Battle of Belmont was fought on November 7, 1861, in Mississippi
County, Missouri. It was the first combat test in the Civil War for
Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, the future Union Army general in
chief and eventual U.S. president. On the morning of November 7, 1861
Grant landed troops on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River
opposite the Confederate fortifications at Columbus Kentucky - known as
the “Gibraltar of the West.” Grant’s troops marched to the small town of
Belmont and overran a surprised Confederate camp and destroyed it.
However, the scattered Confederate forces quickly reorganized and were
reinforced from Columbus. Their counterattack, supported by heavy
artillery fire from across the river forced Grant to retreat to his
riverboats. The battle was relatively unimportant, but with little
happening elsewhere at the time, it received considerable attention in
from the marker erected by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
This marker is included in the” A State Divided: The Civil War in
Missouri” marker series.
North and west of this location, the battle of Belmont was fought on
November 7, 1861. It was the first battle in which Ulysses S Grant
commanded an army. He had recently been promoted to Brigadier General
and placed in command of the federal district of Southeast Missouri with
headquarters at Cairo, Illinois. Opposing Grant was Major General
Leonidas Polk, and him Episcopal Bishop turned soldier. Polk was
commanding the Confederate for patients at Columbus, Kentucky
overlooking the Mississippi River. Directly opposite Columbus, on the
Missouri side of the river was a small hamlet in landing name Belmont.
At Columbus, towering bluffs projected toward the river and provided the
first ideal location below Cairo for the placement of artillery
batteries. Both sides eyed this location as being strategically
important to the control of the Mississippi River. To occupy Columbus
however, would be to violate Kentucky's declared neutrality in the Civil
War. On September 3, 1861, the Confederacy made the first move in this
direction when Polk’s army occupied hikes above Columbus.
By the time of the Battle of Belmont, the Columbus fortification
bristled with 140 artillery pieces, including a 128-pounder Whitworth
rifled gun nicknamed "Lady Polk ." The garrison consisted of 19,000
soldiers. From the fortifications, a mile-long chain had been extended
across the river to Belmont to block union gunboats. This massive chain,
requiring a six ton anchor to hold it in place, enjoyed only a brief
career before breaking, apparently of its own weight. The anchor, a
short section of the chain, and the remnants of the fortifications are
preserved at the Columbus-Belmont battlefield State Park in Columbus,
Immediately after Polk’s occupation of Columbus, Grant countered by
moving up the Ohio River from Cairo and seizing Paducah, Kentucky on
September 6, 1861. Paducah’s location in proximity to the mouths of the
Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers opened to Union forces a route of
invasion into the heartland of the western Confederacy.
By November, 1861, the Confederates had established an outpost, called
Camp Johnston, at Belmont to serve as an observation post. The decision
by Grant to assault this encampment was based on faulty information. He
had been led to believe that Polk was to send troops to reinforce
pro-Southern forces under Gen. Sterling Price in southwest Missouri.
Grant was also concerned that a Union detachment sent to drive the
Southern partisan commander, M. Jeff Thompson, the elusive "Swamp Box,"
from the state would be cut off and captured by Polk 's troop movements.
On the morning of November 7, a Federal flotilla of four transports into
gunboats landed grants task force of 3114 men and hunters point, 2 miles
above Belmont. While this force attacked the Confederate camp, Gen. C.
F. Smith, commander at Paducah, was to conduct a demonstration against
Columbus from the Kentucky side of the river to discourage Polk from
reinforcing Camp Johnston.
The Federals then converged on the Confederate camp from two directions
and drove its defenders towards the river where they found protection
and concealment behind the nearly vertical embankment at the water’s
edge. Once in the camp, Grant lost control of his troops who abandoned
the attack in order to loot to camp and celebrate what seemed to be any
easy victory. This revelry proved premature, Polk had been observing the
progress of the battle from Columbus. While his big guns kept Grants
gunboats at a respectful distance, Polk sent to steamers across the
river with additional regiments under Brigadier General Benjamin
Cheatham. Their orders were to tear into Grants flank and prevent his
force from retreating to their transports.
Grant described the reaction of his men to the approaching
reinforcements: "At first some of the officers seem 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." The way back involved fierce
fighting and many Union casualties, but Grant managed to get both of his
army back to the safety of the transports. Grant was the last Federal to
leave the field. He boarded the transport by guiding his horse down the
nearly perpendicular riverbank and trotting him across a narrow
Bella Belmont had lasted six hours. The Union lost 120 killed, 383
wounded, and 104 captured are missing for a total of 607 casualties, are
20% of the total force. On the Confederate side 105 were killed, 419
wounded, and 117 captured are missing for a total of 641 casualties, are
16% of the total force engaged.
Grant, himself, acknowledged the criticisms in the North that the Battle
of Belmont was a wholly unnecessary battle barren of results. But he
still insisted, in his Personal Memoirs, that he had accomplished his
objective. He felt he had prevented troops from being detached from
Columbus for service elsewhere, and more important, he had given his
troops needed combat experience. "The National troops acquired
confidence in themselves at Belmont that did not desert them through the
war," he wrote. Despite the inevitable mistakes of a neophyte general,
Grant demonstrated at Belmont his steadiness of judgment under fire, and
his ability to get out of tight spots – two qualities that were key to
his greatness as a commander.
Polk won the Battle of Belmont, but his successful defense was in vain.
Four months after Belmont, Grant launched an attack from Paducah on
Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. With
the surrender of the forts to Grant, Polk was flanked at Columbus and
compelled to abandon the massive fortifications of this "Gibraltar or of
the West" without a shot being fired.