General Polk and the battle of Belmont.
On the 1st of November, 1861, General Fremont
ordered General Grant
, and General C. F. Smith
, 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
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
, he steamed down the Mississippi River
toward the same objective point.
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.
, 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.
, opposite Columbus
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
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
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.
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
,--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
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
upon the flank and rear, he drove him from
Portraits of Confederate privates of the West.-ii.|
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
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
boats attempted argued well for the efficiency of their service.
In closing his report of this battle, General Polk
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
was a man of unlimited personal courage, and
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
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
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.
was a defeat for the Confederates
, then, by a similar chain of occurrences and conclusions, Grant
was defeated at Belmont
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
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
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
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
As the company rose from the table the gallant colonel, raising his glass, proposed: “George Washington
, the father of his country.”
, 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
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
laughingly answered that he wished it might-be so.