Tuesday, March 18, 2008

the battle of Belmont

Kentucky, with a Confederate governor but a Union legislature, declares itself neutral at the beginning of the war. This neutrality is first violated on September 3, 1861, when Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk occupies Columbus, a key position on the Mississippi River. Two days later Union General Ulysses S. Grant moves from Cairo, Illinois, and takes Paducah, in Kentucky. Grant commands the district of Southeast Missouri and requests to attack Columbus overland. No such orders are forthcoming from theater commander General John C. Fremont and little happens in this corner of the war.

Fremont learns from a spy that the Confederates are reinforcing their forces in Arkansas. On November 1, Grant is ordered to feint toward Columbus to tie down the Confederate garrison. At first, he sends 3000 men under Col. Richard Oglesby into southeast Missouri. hearing that Confederate reinforcements are moving into Missouri toward Oglesby, Grant sends more men south and also orders General Charles F. Smith to move overland from Paducah to further pressure the Confederate position in Kentucky.

Grant chooses to attack Belmont in Missouri, a ferry landing on the Mississippi across from Columbus. Grant embarks 2 brigades of over 3000 men under General John A. McClernand and Colonel Henry Dougherty, 2 cavalry companies, and an artillery battery.

On November 6, 6 transports and 2 gunboats (the Tyler and Lexington) sail downstream from Cairo.

Polk has 5000 troops in Columbus. When he learns of Grant's expedition he surmises that Grant is feinting toward Belmont and Columbus is the true objective. General Gideon J. Pillow and 2700 men cross to Belmont and the rest remain in Kentucky.

At Belmont Grant finds a small Confederate picket camp, named Camp Johnston, and an artillery battery. He attacks in order to prevent reinforcement of the nearby Confederate troops Generals Sterling Price and M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guard, and to protect Oglesby's exposed left flank.

At 8:30 in the morning on November 7, Grant's force disembarks 3 miles north of Belmont, just out of range of Confederate batteries mounting large guns across the river in Columbus. They march south on the lone road into town, clearing obstructions of fallen timber and abatis. A mile from town, they form a line of battle in a corn field. The troops, arrayed from north to south, are the 22nd Illinois, 7th Iowa, 31st Illinois, 30th Illinois, and 27th Illinois, with a single cavalry company intermixed. On the low ridge northwest of the Belmont camp, the Confederate battle line is, from north to south, the 12th Tennessee, 13th Arkansas , 22nd Tennessee, 21st Tennessee, and 13th Tennessee.

Grant's attack pushes back the Confederate skirmish line and for the remainder of the morning, both armies, mostly green recruits, advance and retreat, over and over. At 2 p.m., Pillow's line collapses and he withdraws toward Camp Johnston. An orderly retreat turns to panic and four Federal guns join to bombard the retreating soldiers. A singular volley from the 31st Illinois, kills dozens of Confederates, the Union soldiers attack from three sides and surge into the camp. Grant is at the front, his horse is shot but ne mounts an aide’s and continues to lead.

The Confederates abandon guns and colors and run to the river and their 2 transports.

Grant's inexperienced soldiers are, in his words, "demoralized from their victory." McClernand moves to the camp’s center, now flying the Stars and Stripes, calls for three cheers and begins a victory speech. The men begin looting the camp and Grant struggles to regain control. He orders the camp burned and the men to return to the transports.

In the meantime, the Confederates ferry fresh troops over the river to cut off Grant’s line of withdrawal. These new men are the 15th Tennessee and 11th Louisiana under Pillow and Colonel Benjamin F. Cheatham. The Union troops exchange fire with the Confederate reinforcements, a Confederate gunboat fires into their ranks, Confederate guns fire across the river and the Union gunboats return fire in an increasingly confused battle. Grant tells an aide, "Well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in."

At the landing, one Union regiment is unaccounted for, separated by the terrain. Grant gallops back to look for it, but finds only a mass of Confederate soldiers. He reverses course and rides for the river, finding that the transport captains have cast off lines. Grant later writes, "The captain of the boat that had just pushed out 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. He 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 on board."

The Confederates claim victory at Belmont. Grant’s demonstration is beaten off but his poor judgment gains invaluable experience. The Union losses are 120 dead, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing. The Confederate lose 105 killed, 419 wounded, 106 captured, and 11 missing.

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