A minor battle early in the American Civil War that gave U.S. Grant his first experience of battlefield command. At the start of the war, Kentucky had attempted to remain neutral. For some time both sides had respected this, hoping that patience would bring Kentucky onto their side. Opinion in the state was very evenly balanced between north and south, so any provocative move could have tipped the balance.
In the end it was the Confederates who blinked first. It was control of the Mississippi that made them move. Union forces appeared to be gathering further north in preparation for a move along the river. General Leonidas Polk, commanding Confederate forces in the area, decided that he needed to occupy Columbus, Kentucky, a town on commanding heights on the east bank of the river. On 3 September his troops entered Kentucky, reaching Columbus the following day.
His move was premature. Union forces were gathering, but their commanders had no immediate plans to move south. Their first significant moves in the area were to come early in the next year, and to hit further east. However, Polk’s move did swing opinion in Kentucky strongly towards the Union. His move was denounced as an invasion of the state, and Federal aid was sought. General U.S. Grant, the Federal commander at Cairo, the southernmost town in Illinois, sent a garrison to Paducah, just inside northern Kentucky, and close to the Tennessee River.
While events in Kentucky had moved slowly, across the river in Missouri the same was not true. By the end of the summer of 1861 a significant campaign had already been fought in the state, and another was underway. At the start of November reports started to reach Union commanders that Polk was going to send reinforcements from Columbus into Missouri, to help General Stirling Price. The rumours were not true, but U.S. Grant was ordered to make a demonstration towards Columbus to prevent any such move.
Grant was only able to field a force of 3,000 men. On 6 November he moved to within six miles of Columbus. Up till now he had had no intention of seeking a battle. However, his men were already becoming restless at the lack of action, and Grant began to feel that he had to give them a chance to fight. He then learnt of a Confederate camp at Belmont, opposite Columbus on the Missouri bank of the river. This was camp of observation – a simple precaution against the west bank being seized by Union forces, containing a single Infantry regiment on 6 November. Grant however suspected that this camp might be a base for the reinforcements he believed were being sent west, and decided to attack that camp.
On the morning of 7 November, Grant landed his men on the Missouri shore, five miles north of Belmont, and began to march south. Warned of this movement, Polk decided to reinforce the force at Belmont, bringing it up to just over 3,000 men by the time the fighting began. The rest of his force he kept on the east bank, still expecting an attack on Columbus.
The fighting began at 10.30. Over the next four hours the Confederates were slowly forced back into their camp, and then past it back to the river bank. Now things started to go wrong for Grant’s men. On reaching the enemy camp they found that the retreating Confederates had taken shelter at the base of the steep river bank, where they were protected by the guns of Columbus. For some time discipline was lost as the men looted the Confederate camp.
The apparently defeated Confederates took advantage of this to slip north along the river bank, emerging back onto higher ground between Grant’s men and their boats. At the same time Polk was sending more men across the river, having finally realised that Grant’s attack was not a feint.
For a moment things looked grim for Grant. Seeing themselves surrounded some of Grant’s officers suggested surrender. Grant however saw things differently – as he said ‘we had cut our way in and could cut our way out just as well’. He was right. His men were now back under control, and easily broke through the Confederate lines between them and their boats (although one regiment did get separated from the main army and had to march much further north before finding suitable transports).
Belmont was something of a draw. Grant lost 607 men (120 killed, 383 wounded and 104 captured or missing), Polk slightly more at 641 men (105 killed, 419 wounded and 117 missing). Polk could claim that Grant had failed in his attempt to capture the Confederate camp, Grant that he had only ever planned a raid, and had therefore had some success. Grant certainly came in for some criticism in the north, where the battle was attacked as pointless, and an unnecessary risk. It did have some positive results for the north. It increased Grant’s confidence in his own ability to command, and his men’s ability to fight the Confederates. It also helped bring him to the attention of President Lincoln as one of the few Union solders willing to fight.