The Attack Begins
The decision to change the demonstration at Columbus to an attack at Belmont was taken without authorization from Fremont. In fact, it was directly opposed to his order that the operation should be confined to a demonstration and no attack should be made at any point. Nevertheless, Grant felt that the reported build up of enemy forces at Belmont posed a significant threat to his troops on the march in Missouri. Specifically, he was concerned that Oglesby could be cut off and destroyed if action was not taken to preclude such a move.*
The transports departed the staging area at Island No.1 with an escort of the gunboats Tyler and Lexington at 0700. The landing were made at 0830 about three miles north of Belmont, or “just out of range of the rebel batteries at Columbus.” After assembling the troops in cornfields BG John McClernand began the march south after posting a battalion of 2nd Brigade troops (2 Co’s of the 7th Iowa and three Co’s of the 22nd Illinois) to secure the landing site. McClernand also dispatched his available cavalry force (128 men from two Illinois companies) to clear the road and adjacent woodlines. The order of march was established as 27th Illinois in the lead followed in order by the 30th Illinois with one section of the Chicago Light Artillery, the 31st Illinois with the remaining section of artillery, and the remaining troops of the 7th Iowa and 22nd Illinois in the rear. Two companies from each regiment were placed forward as skirmishers. The uneventful march came to an end when they reached an abatis and cavalry troopers were “skirmishing sharply” with the Confederate pickets.
At the abatis McClernand formed his line of battle. The left wing consisted of the 7th Iowa and 22nd Illinois, the right the 27th and 30th Illinois with one section of guns, and the center by the 31st Illinois and the remaining section of artillery. Two companies from each regiment were ordered forward to “seek out and develop the position of the enemy.” As the line was being assembled the Confederate batteries at Columbus shifted their fire away from the two Union gunboats and engaged McClernand’s men “without serious effect.” As the firing near the center of the line grew more intense McClernand fortified the two companies of skirmishers there with additional assets. On a personal reconnassaince forward McClernand discerned a more favorable position and “ordered up the balance of my command”. The Union troops moved forward and formed the new line in the same configuration as the first. McClernand believed that the new line encircled the enemy camp and hoped that this would control “the river above and below him” thus preventing reinforcements from Columbus coming to the aid of the apparently trapped Confederates.
*Grant’s justifications noted in the November 17, 1861 edited version of his OR seems to ring hollow in the face of the missing November 5th message from Fremont. Additionally his orders to Oglesby to turn south predate the report from Wallace. It seems that Grant had an attack on Belmont in mind all along and used this report to justify it in hindsight. This decision was partly a result of Grant’s attitude about the threat posed by Thompson’s troops. Following the pounding they took at Frederickstown on October 21st Grant considered them a non-factor in the military situation.
The initial attack “pressed vigorously upon the enemy” driving the defenders back about a quarter mile. They were strengthened there by the arrival of four regiments of Tennessee troops (12th,13th, 21st, and 22nd) from Columbus under BG Pillow. The first reports of Union activity on the Missouri side of the river caused the camp commander, COL Tappan of the 13th Arkansas, to request help from Polk. The reinforcements departed the Kentucky shore at about 0900 and joined the fray shortly thereafter. The Confederates attempted to make use of the new strength to move around the Union left flank. McClernand reacted by ordering COL John Logan, commanding the 31st Illinois, to extend the line in that direction. The movement created a gap between the 30th and 31st Illinois that was covered by shifting of guns into the area. The adjustment proved effective and the flanking “attempt was frustrated.”
A “combined movement” of all the Federal troops closed in and the defenders were pushed back into their camp. A battery was ordered up to “within 300 yards” and opened fire into the camp. The heavy volume of musketry from three sides and the artillery fire was enough to drive the Confederates toward the river. They found shelter on a small wooded plain made available by the seasonal low water. The refuge was in clear site and range of the enemy guns at Columbus and McClernand declined to challenge them there. Possession of the camp was enough for McClernand to cal for “three cheers for the Union.”
At this point chaos took over as the victorious Union troops began to rifle through the tents of the encampment. This disorder coupled with the efforts to recover the captured artillery was enough to prevent the Federals from recognizing the approach of a second wave of Confederates from Columbus until too late. Landing above the camp was the 2nd TN, 15th TN, 154th TN, 11th LA and the 1st MS Battalion. Not only did these troops pose a serious threat to the Union flank they also had the possibility of cutting them off from their transports upstream.Battle of Belmont (Campaign Series)
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