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General Polk and the battle of Belmont.

His son, Dr. William M. Polk, Captain, C. S. A.
On the 1st of November, 1861, General Fremont ordered General Grant at Cairo, and General C. F. Smith at Paducah, to hold their commands in readiness for a demonstration upon Columbus, Kentucky, a strong position then occupied by about ten thousand Confederate troops under General Leonidas Polk. The object of the proposed demonstration was to cover an effort to be made to drive General Jeff. Thompson from south-east Missouri; and at the same time to check the sending of reinforcements to Price. In accordance with this general plan, on the 4th and 6th Grant moved Colonels R. J. Oglesby, W. H. L. Wallace, and J. B. Plummer in the direction of the town of Sikeston, Mo. Next he ordered the garrison at Fort Holt opposite Cairo to advance in the direction of Columbus, and early on the morning of the 7th, with a force of about 3500 men of all arms, convoyed by the gunboats Lexington and Tyler, he steamed down the Mississippi River toward the same objective point. Smith meanwhile from the direction of Paducah threw forward his column of 2000 men.

The mobilization of these various commands, some 12,000 men in all, was duly reported to Polk, and with the report came rumors of the enemy's designs. Polk, however, did not believe that so extensive a movement was directed against Thompson, whose entire force numbered not more than 1,500 men, then encamped far down toward Arkansas. Nor could he think that the plea of preventing the sending of reenforcements to Price was genuine, as he knew that there were no troops then (nor were there likely to be any) in motion to join Price. On the other hand, having for some weeks had every reason to expect a determined effort on Grant's part to dislodge him, he naturally supposed that the looked — for attack was at hand.

The force at his disposal, including the garrison of Columbus, was then about 10,000 men of all arms. At Belmont, opposite Columbus, Polk had established a camp of observation, which was then occupied by one regiment of infantry, a battery of artillery, and a squadron of cavalry. In order to command the approaches to this position by the batteries on the high ground at Columbus, the trees had been felled for some distance along the west bank, and the fallen timber had been so placed as to form an abatis capable of obstructing the advance of an enemy. This camp Grant decided to attack.

Accordingly, at about 8 o'clock on the morning of the 7th he disembarked his force on the Missouri shore, some five miles above Belmont, and ordered the gun-boats to drop below and engage the batteries at Columbus. Quickly forming his column, Grant pushed for the Confederate camp.

Polk meanwhile sent General McCown with a force of infantry and artillery up the east bank of the river, and, learning of the landing of the enemy on the west shore, dispatched General Pillow with four regiments to the aid of the camp, thus providing this officer with a force (2700 of all arms) but little [349]

Portraits of Confederate privates of the West.-I. From tintypes found at the close of the war in the dead-letter office, Richmond. Letters accompanying the tintypes suggest that the warlike attitude was a favorite pose for pictures intended for sisters and sweethearts.

inferior to that which was about to attack him. Anxious, however, to give Pillow all the men that he deemed necessary, Polk moved over another regiment (five hundred men), which landed on the Missouri shore just as the battle began (10:30 A. M.) Thus in all fairness it must be stated, that when the battle of Belmont commenced the opposing forces were virtually equal. The engagement became general a few minutes before 11 o'clock. With his line well extended Grant bore down upon the Confederate position, and, though stubbornly resisted, he gradually fought his way forward, driving the Confederates to the river bank and capturing the camp.

Polk had been deterred from sending in the first instance a larger force to meet Grant's attack by the reports which his scouts made of the movements of the transports upon the river, and of the position and numbers of the columns from Fort Holt and Paducah,--all tending to show that the landing upon the opposite side of the river was a mere feint, while the real design was an attack upon Columbus. In spite of this, however, as we have seen, he placed at Belmont a force fully equal to that with which Grant was acting. Finding now that this force was being defeated, and learning at the same time that there was no enemy upon the Kentucky shore near enough to threaten seriously his position, he promptly moved over to Belmont additional reinforcements. Striking Grant upon the flank and rear, he drove him from

Portraits of Confederate privates of the West.-ii.

[350] the field and pursued him to his transports. The heavy guns upon the high ground at Columbus aided materially in Grant's discomfiture; as, after the Confederates were driven to the river bank, they were able to rake the Federal position.1 These batteries also had an opportunity to test their fire upon gun-boats, and the ease with which they repulsed the two attacks which the [351] boats attempted argued well for the efficiency of their service. In closing his report of this battle, General Polk says:
On landing I was met by General Pillow and General Cheatham, whom I directed, with the regiments of General Cheatham's command and portions of others, to press the enemy to his boats. This order was executed with alacrity and in double-quick time. The route over which we passed was strewn with the dead and wounded of the conflicts of Colonel Marks and General Cheatham, already alluded to, and with arms, knapsacks, overcoats, etc. On arriving at the point where his transports lay, I ordered the column, headed by the 154th Regiment of Tennessee Volunteers, under cover of a field thickly set with corn, to

General Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana (killed near Kenesaw, June, 1864). from a photograph.

be deployed along the river bank within easy range of the boats. This being accomplished, a heavy fire was opened upon them simultaneously, riddling them with balls, and, as we have reason to believe, with heavy loss to the enemy. Under this galling fire he cut his lines and retreated from the shore, many of his soldiers being driven overboard by the rush of those behind them. Our fire was returned by heavy cannonading from his gun-boats, which discharged upon our lines showers of grape, canister and Shell, as they retired with their convoy in the direction of Cairo.

General Polk was mistaken in concluding that all the Federal force had reembarked. The 27th Illinois regiment, whose colonel, N. B. Buford, was one of Polk's old West Point friends, had been separated from the rest of the command in the hurry of the retreat, and, taking a road that lay some little distance from the river, made its way northward. Coming back to the river at a point above that at which General Grant had so precipitately taken to his boats, it succeeded, at about dark, in getting on board a transport without molestation. The absence of the Confederate cavalry and the confusion of the pursuit alone prevented the discovery and capture of this force.2 [352]

Brigadier-General U. S. Grant. From a photograph taken in 1861. In a note to the editors Colonel Frederick D. Grant says of this picture:
It was taken in Cairo, Ill., in 1861, and is a remarkably good picture of General Grant as he looked at that time. He had always worn his beard trimmed short until he was appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois; but during the time that he was serving in Missouri he did not trim his beard, nor did he do so on being stationed at Cairo after his appointment as brigadier-general. After he had fought the battle of Belmont, he sent for his family to come on from Galena and make him a visit. This picture had been taken just before the visit, and one of the first things that my mother said to him was, that she did not like the length of his beard. Later in the winter, and a short time after our arrival in Cairo, General Grant got permission to go to St. Louis on business connected with his command. During that visit he was shaved — the first time in my recollection that he ever was shaved; the second and only other instance was when he was President.

The battle of Belmont was long and severe. Beginning at half-past 10 o'clock in the morning, it did not end until sunset. The losses on both sides bear evidence of the character of the fighting. The Confederate loss was [353] 642 in killed, wounded, and missing. That of the Federals, owing to the differences in their figures, is more difficult to determine; but, accepting the reports of the brigade and regimental commanders as correct, it must be placed at about six hundred [see page 355]. It is, however, not easy to place entire confidence in these figures. One thing is certain: the Federal dead and nearly all their wounded were left upon the field. General Pillow reports that he buried 295 of them, and that, under a flag of truce, the Federals were similarly engaged “a good part of the day.” General Grant states that he carried 175 prisoners from t;he field, and General Polk, that after a liberal exchange, by which he recovered all of his own men, he had still 100 prisoners in his hands. The substantial fruits of victory were, therefore, with the Confederates, and their Congress, in acknowledgment of the fact, passed resolutions commending Polk, his commanders, and the troops for the service rendered.

The chief objects of General Grant's attack, as stated by himself, had been, first to assist a movement against General Thompson's command, and second, to break up the camp at Belmont. He failed in both, for the camp was continued, and the disaster to his command caused him to recall the troops sent after Thompson. He carried off two cannon and a number of the sick and wounded Confederates found in their camp; but he fled the field, virtually abandoning one of his regiments, leaving his dead and wounded, a large preponderance of prisoners, a stand of his colors, one thousand stand of arms, and the caissons of his battery in the hands of the Confederates. His fight had, however, been a gallant one, and, at one time, the entire Confederate line was swept before his onset.

The gun-boats “Tyler” and “Lexington” fighting the Columbus batteries during the battle of Belmont. From a drawing by rear-admiral Walke.

[354] He has estimated his force at 3114 men, while the commander of his First Brigade states it as 3500. The discrepancy is, no doubt, accounted for by the fact that five companies were left to guard the transports, thus leaving, for the actual engagement, the number of troops stated by himself. When the battle began General Pillow had in line 2500 men, exclusive of a squadron of cavalry and a battery, and by 11 o'clock he was joined by Walker's regiment, numbering about 500, thus giving the Confederates a force fully equal to that of their antagonists; and yet they were driven in much confusion from their position. To account for this three reasons have been assigned: It has been said, first, that the Federal force was largely superior in numbers; secondly, that the Confederates were insufficiently supplied with ammunition; and thirdly, that they were at a disadvantage owing to the exposed position in which their line was formed. The first of these reasons is, as has just been shown, clearly incorrect; the second is equally so, as regards the infantry, although the field-battery certainly was short of powder and ball. Proof of this may be found in the reports of the several regimental commanders who took part in the engagement. On the third point the evidence shows that

Confederate fortifications at Columbus, Ky. From a war-time sketch.

most of the line of battle, especially the center, was placed in an exposed position, in an open field, with a heavy wood only about eighty yards distant in its front. Under the cover of this wood the Federal force moved forward its line of battle and, halting at the timber's edge, raked the field with its fire. The Confederates had been on the ground for several weeks, and the advantageous positions should have been familiar to them. The force sent over to aid in opposing Grant was on the ground quite long enough before the battle began to have found out a better position on which to form, and it stood in line of battle one hour before the Federal attack was made. There were several positions at hand, any one of which would have been better. This was especially the case with the ground in the rear of the abatis of felled trees. It is difficult to account for this error, without taking into consideration the characteristics of General Pillow, the officer commanding upon the field. Pillow was a man of unlimited personal courage, and [355] upon this occasion, the first, in this war, in which he had had an opportunity to come to blows with his enemy, he no doubt mentally invested his soldiers with the same capacity for resistance that he felt within himself, overlooking the fact that they were fresh levies and that it was their first engagement. Be this as it may, he soon found that he was unable to hold his position and therefore attempted to dislodge the concealed foe by a series of gallant charges. These proved of no avail, and, after losing heavily, he had to give way. In the mean time he must have inflicted heavy loss upon the enemy, for it required the pressure of but two additional regiments, which

Captain John A. Rawlins, assistant-adjutant-general on Briggen. Grant's staff. From a photograph taken in 1861.

arrived about 12 o'clock, and numbered together but 1,000 men, to drive Grant from the field. The force which won the battle of Belmont was, then, about 4000 men. It is true that an additional reinforcement of 2 regiments of about 500 men each was sent across the river, but they arrived after the Federal force had been defeated, and took part only in the pursuit.

In short, it may be said that the battle was fought by 3114 Federals against 4000 Confederates, the result being a victory for the latter; and that, subsequently, the Confederates were reinforced by 1,000 men with whom they took up the pursuit, thus bringing the total upon the field to 5000 of all arms.3 In [356] comparing this engagement with other battles of the war the points of resemblance between it and that of Shiloh, fought six months later and upon a much more extended scale, must strike every observer. If Shiloh was a defeat for the Confederates, then, by a similar chain of occurrences and conclusions, Grant was defeated at Belmont.4

Soon after the battle of Belmont a painful accident occurred at Columbus by which the commanding general nearly lost his life. During the progress of the battle a 128-pounder rifled gun had been charged while hot; but, no opportunity offering to use it to advantage, it was allowed to cool and remain charged four days. When fired it burst. This caused the explosion of its magazine, killing seven persons and severely wounding General Polk and other officers.

In a letter to his wife, dated November 12th, General Polk says:

I and others of my officers have spent pretty much the whole day in my boat on the river with Buford [Colonel N. B. Buford, 27th Illinois] and his officers, discussing the principles of exchange, and other matters connected with the war. He is as good a fellow as ever lived, and most devotedly my friend — a true Christian, a true soldier, and a gentleman every inch of him. He said it did him good to come down and talk with me, and hoped it might be the means of peace and so on. I was very plain and clear in my position, as you may know, but very kind.

After completing my exchange, I had still about 100 of their prisoners in my keeping, and among them 15 or 20 of his regiment. These he was very anxious I should let him take back. He urged me in every way, even on the score of our friendship, but I could not yield, especially to such a plea, which would have subjected me to the charge of consulting individual preference to public duty. He admitted it, and was obliged to leave without them, but we had a very pleasant day. I went up with him nearly to Cairo. He wanted me to go and spend the night with him; so you see how much we have done on this line toward ameliorating the severities of this unfortunate and wretched state of things.

In another letter to Mrs. Polk, dated November 15th, he says:

Since the accident I have been up the river on two occasions to meet flags of truce; once to meet Grant, and to-day to meet my friend Buford. My interview with General Grant was, on the whole, satisfactory. It was about an exchange of prisoners. He looked rather grave, I thought, like a man who was not at his ease. We talked pleasantly and I succeeded in getting a smile out of him and then got on well enough. I discussed the principles on which I thought [357]

Reembarkation of Grant's troops after the battle. From a drawing by rear-admiral Walke.

the war should be conducted; denounced all barbarity, vandalism, plundering, and all that, and got him to say that he would join in putting it down. I was favorably impressed with him; he is undoubtedly a man of much force. We have now exchanged five or six flags, and he grows more civil and respectful every time.

It was at one of these conferences that an amusing incident occurred which, so far from marring the harmony of the occasion, afforded much merriment to all present. The jest chanced to be at Colonel Buford's expense. The matters of the flag of truce had all been discussed, and the party had adjourned to partake of a simple luncheon which the Confederates had provided. As the company rose from the table the gallant colonel, raising his glass, proposed: “George Washington, the father of his country.” General Polk, with a merry twinkle in his eye, quickly added: “And the first Rebel!” The Federal officers, caught in their own trap, gracefully acknowledged it by drinking the amended toast.

A little later General Cheatham, who was an ardent follower of the turf, discovered symptoms of a like weakness in General Grant. After they had been conversing for some time upon official matters, the conversation drifted upon the subject of horses. This congenial topic was pursued to the satisfaction of each until it finally ended in a grave proposition from Cheatham to Grant that, as this thing of fighting was a troublesome affair, they had best settle the vexing questions about which they had gone to war, by a grand, international horse-race over on the Missouri shore. Grant laughingly answered that he wished it might-be so.

1 General Grant, in his Personal memoirs (New York: C. L. Webster & Co.), says: “The officers and men engaged at Belmont were then under fire for the first time. Veterans could not have behaved better than they did up to the moment of reaching the rebel camp. At this point they became demoralized from their victory and failed to reap its full reward. The enemy had been followed so closely that when he reached the clear ground on which his camp was pitched he beat a hasty retreat over the river bank, which protected him from our shots and from view. This precipitate retreat at the last moment enabled the National forces to pick their way without hindrance through the abatis — the only artificial defense the enemy had. The moment the camp was reached our men laid down their arms and commenced rummaging the tents to pick up trophies. Some of the higher officers were little better than the privates. They galloped about from one cluster of men to another, and at every halt delivered a short eulogy upon the Union cause and the achievements of the command. All this time the troops we had been engaged with for four hours lay crouched under cover of the river bank, ready to come up and surrender if summoned to do so; but, finding that they were not pursued, they worked their way up the river and came up on the bank between us and our transports. I saw at the same time two steamers coming from the Columbus side toward the west shore, above us, black, or gray, with soldiers from boiler-deck to roof. Some of my men were engaged in firing from captured guns at empty steamers down the river, out of range, cheering at every shot. I tried to get them to turn their guns upon the loaded steamers above and not so far away. My efforts were in vain. At last I directed my staff-officers to set fire to the camps. This drew the fire of the enemy's guns located on the heights of Columbus. They had abstained from firing before, probably because they were afraid of hitting their own men; or they may have supposed, until the camp was on fire, that it was still in the possession of their friends. About this time, too, the men we had driven over the bank were seen in line up the river between us and our transports. The alarm ‘surrounded’ was given. The guns of the enemy and the report of being surrounded brought officers and men completely under control. 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. They formed line rapidly and we started back to our boats, with the men deployed as skirmishers as they had been on entering camp. The enemy was soon encountered, but his resistance this time was feeble.”

Map of the battlefield near Belmont.

2 General Grant thus describes the return to the boats: “The corn-field in front of our transports terminated at the edge of a dense forest. Before I got back the enemy had entered this forest and had opened a brisk fire upon the boats. Our men, with the exception of details that had gone to the front after the wounded, were now either aboard the transports or very near them. Those who were not aboard soon got there, and the boats pushed off. I was the only man of the National army between the rebels and our transports. The captain of a boat that had just pushed out, but had not started, recognized me and ordered the engineer not to start the engine; he then had a plank run out for me. My horse seemed to take in the situation. There was no path down the bank, and every one acquainted with the Mississippi River knows that its banks, in a natural state, do not vary at any great angle from the perpendicular. My horse put his fore feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and, with his hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted aboard the boat, twelve or fifteen feet away, over a single gang-plank.”--[ Personal memoirs. ]

3 A recent revision of the official tables of losses shows that the estimates as given in the official records are under the mark. The official records and the officially revised estimates furnish the following data:

The Union forces engaged at Belmont, Mo., under Brig.-Gen. U. S. Grant, were composed of the First Brigade, Brig.-Gen. John A. McClernand: 27th Illinois, Col. N. B. Buford; 30th Illinois, Col. Philip B. Fouke; 31st Illinois, Col. John A. Logan; Dollins' Co. Illinois Cavalry, Capt. J. J. Dollins; Delano's Co. Illinois Cavalry, Lieut. J. K. Catlin; Battery B, 1st Illinois Lt. Artillery, Capt. Ezra Taylor. Second Brigade, Col. Henry Dougherty: 22d Illinois, Lieut.-Col. H. E. Hart, and 7th Iowa, Col. J. G. Lauman,--the whole command numbering 3114 men.

The gun-boats Tyler, Capt. Henry Walke, and Lexington, Capt. R. N. Stembel, also bore a part in the engagement.

The loss sustained by the Union troops, according to the revised official returns, was 120 killed, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing,--total, 607. The navy lost 1 killed and 2 wounded.

The superior officer on the Confederate side was Maj.-Gen. Leonidas Polk, with Brig.-Gens. G. J. Pillow and B. F. Cheatham in subordinate command. The troops under them immediately engaged consisted of the 13th Arkansas, Col. James C. Tappan; 11th Louisiana, Col. S. F. Marks (commanding brigade), Lieut.-Col. R. H. Barrow; Blythe's Mississippi, Col. A. K. Blythe; 2d Tennessee, Col. J. Knox Walker (commanding brigade), Lieut.-Col. W. B. Ross; 12th Tennessee, Col. R. M. Russell (commanding brigade), Lieut.-Col. T. H. Bell; 13th Tennessee, Col. John V. Wright; 15th Tennessee, Maj. J. W. Hambleton; 21st Tennessee, Col. Ed. Pickett, Jr.; 22d Tennessee, Col. Thomas J. Freeman; 154th Senior Tennessee, Col. Preston Smith (commanding brigade), Lieut.-Col. Marcus J. Wright; Watson (La.) Battery, Lieut.-Col. D. Beltzhoover; Mississippi and Tennessee Cavalry, Lieut.-Cols. John H. Miller and T. H. Logwood.

The Point Coupee (Louisiana) Battery, Captain R. A. Stewart; Mississippi Battery, Captain Melancthon Smith; Siege Battery, Captain S. H. D. Hamilton, and the Fort Artillery, Major A. P. Stewart, all of Brigadier-General John P. McCown's command on the Kentucky side of the river, also participated.

The Confederate loss was 105 killed, 419 wounded, and 117 missing,--in all, 641.

The whole number of Confederates on the field is not officially reported. The 5 regiments originally engaged numbered about 2500 men. Allowing the same average of strength for the reenforcements subsequently sent across the river, and more or less engaged, the Confederates may be estimated at not less than five thousand.-editors.

4 Of the result of the battle, General Grant says: “Belmont was severely criticised in the North as a wholly unnecessary battle, barren of results or the possibility of them from the beginning. If it had not been fought, Colonel Oglesby would probably have been captured or destroyed with his three thousand men. Then I should have been culpable indeed.”--[ Personal memoirs. ]

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