The opening weeks of the standoff in western Kentucky were dominated by the powerful misconceptions about the opposing commander’s intent. MG John Fremont believed that the Confederate presence at Columbus posed a serious threat to the Union positions in both Kentucky and Missouri. He directed his subordinate commander, BG Grant, to secure Paducah and be vigilant for any offensive movement of the enemy. He continually sent warnings based on reports from spies and scouts that Polk had his troops on the march. Each time the reports proved baseless. Besides tiring of Fremont’s cries of wolf, Grant was of a different mind.
Polk’s attention was entirely set on establishing Columbus as an unassailable fortress. There was little in his actions that indicated any threat of assuming the offensive. He concentrated his efforts on controlling the river from his high ground. His artillery compliment grew steadily until it reached 140 guns, including a 8 ton breech loading behemoth named “Lady Polk” after his wife. To stop any Union river traffic and make them better targets for his arsenal, Polk had a huge chain stretched across the river. The chain was kept afloat by makeshift log pontoons and secured to the Kentucky shore by a 6 ton anchor. Polk also kept his nearly 20,000 men busy digging fortifications in preparation for a Federal attack. Much as Grant expected he displayed little in the way of aggressiveness.
Grant based his estimation on prior knowledge of the commanders he was facing, MG Leonidas Polk and BG Gideon Pillow. The two had earned less than sterling reputations for their roles in the Mexican War. Grant was familiar with the pair and when he learned that they opposed him stated that they “would not be a formible enemy.” Polk was a favorite of President Jefferson Davis and had been assigned to the west to monitor the actions of the lightly regarded Pillow. Unfortunately the plan backfired when Polk was convinced by Pillow that the military benefits of a Kentucky invasion outweighed the political consequences. Given the opinion that Polk was cautious and Pillow incompetent Grant thought it doubtful that the pair would assume the offensive from Columbus.
Grant advocated strongly for a Union move against the Confederates. He thought the only chance to remove the enemy was to attack them before they could fully develop the defensive potential of the bluffs. Initially Fremont agreed and a two prong offensive was planned. A column from Paducah, now an independent command under BG Charles F. Smith, would threaten the inland side of Polk’s fortress while Grant would lead a waterborne force into eastern Missouri. After clearing any threat from that area he would turn and form a combined assault on Columbus. The Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek ended the plan and the Union chief turned his attention back to the defensive.
Grant dutifully returned to the mundane task of training and arming his troops. He did not reliquish his desire “to advance” his 15,000 men on the enemy however. The first opportunity for an offensive move came when Fremont allowed the establishment of two camps on the western bank of the Mississippi. The troops stationed there (about 3,000 men) had the regular duty of hunting the elusive Confederates. The occasional and usually fruitless expeditions carried out from these camps did little to quell Grant’s appetite for aggressive warfare.
Staging for Battle
Grant received a message from Fremont on November 2 indicating that Jeff Thompson’s presence had been confirmed “at Indian Ford on the St Francois River”. Fremont had dispatched a column, under COL Carlin, and ordered that Grant support it. Fremont’s plan was to conduct a three pronged effort to trap him near the Arkansas border. Two of the columns were comprised of Grant’s troops. COL Richard Oglesby led 4,000 men from Bird’s Point and COL J. B. Plummer led 3,000 more out from Caped Girardeau. The requested troops were on the march on November 3.
On November 5 Grant said he received another telegram (never found) from Fremont informing him that MG Sterling Price’s army in Misoouri was being reinforced from the garrison at Columbus. Grant’s November 17, 1861 revised report of the affair suggested that Fremont had requested a demonstration be made immediately against the fortress to stem the flow of men and material to Price. Grant assembled his forces and also requested that BG C. F. Smith mount a demonstration against Columbus from the inland side. He also sent word to COL Oglesby to “turn your column toward New Madrid.” COL Wallace was also instructed to put what remaining troops he had available (about 400) on the march to meet Oglesby when he turned south. The united column was to “communicate with me at Belmont.” With the Polk’s left and right flank threatened Grant planned to assault the main defenses at Columbus with a 3,100 man combined arms force that would be taken to the landing sites on six transports escorted by the Navy gunboats. With the plan established Smith’s diversionary column marched from Paducah on November 6th. Grant’s troop’s loaded the transports and prepared for their role in the operation.
Yet another message, this one from COL Wallace, altered Grant’s plan again. The messenger, who arrived on a steamer, interrupted the preparations for the demonstration against Columbus at 0200 on November 7. Wallace informed Grant that he had learned from “a reliable Union man” that the Confederates “had been crossing troops from Columbus to Belmont.” In his justification for the coming action Grant stated that he felt that this threatened the columns of Oglesby and Wallace and changed the target of his expedition. He decided to “attack vigorously” the enemy forces at Belmont. Orders were issued that broke the Union forces into two brigades. The first, under BG John McClernand, and the second under COL Henry Dougherty. The force was to “debark at the lowest point on the Missouri shore where a landing can be effected in security from the rebel batteries” at Columbus.Battle of Belmont (Campaign Series)