The first to arrive was BG B. F. Cheatham and staff who gathered the remnants of the 13th Arkansas, 22nd Tennessee, and 13th Tennessee and marched north for a strike against the Union transports. Further north the brigade of COL Preston Smith, with Polk along, landed and moved south against the Federal forces at Camp Johnston. Polk was free to react to the growing sounds of battle at Belmont by the early withdrawal of Smith’s demonstration column from Paducah and the ability of his batteries to keep the Union gunboats at bay.
In the camp the first rounds of artillery from Columbus landing in their midst convinced the Union leaders to burn the camp and return to their boats. The disorganized men were assembled and the march began with McClernand’s brigade in the lead. They had not traveled far when column Cheatham’s men bumped into the flank of COL Dougherty’s column headed in the same direction. Cheatham recalled in his report that the first contact with the Federal column was made when they came upon “50 mounted men who were hailed and found to be Illinois cavalry.” This small group of troopers was backed by Dougherty’s two regiments of infantry (7th Iowa and 22nd Illinois). The sudden appearance of the enemy on their flank caused confusion and panic as Dougherty attempted to face the Confederate threat.The Confederates were brought into line of battle and exchanged fire with the Federals. Dougherty fell with a wound that would eventually lead to the amputation of his leg. A bayonet charge by the Confederates routed the Union line. As the Union infantry fled into the forest Cheatham brought his men into position behind McClernand’s lead elements.
At the same time Smith’s Confederate column had established a blocking position on the Hunter’s Farm Road directly in the path of the Union retreat. McClernand, with Grant present, now found himself trapped between the two enemy lines. Amid cries that they should surrender Grant decided that they had “cut their way in and could cut their way out just as well.” The Chicago Battery (Battery B 1st Illinois Light Artillery) was posted on a small rise and ordered to blow a hole in the Confederate line. CPT Ezra Taylor reported firing 400 rounds from his six guns. None were more important than these. Using double shotted canister followed by a massed volley a hole was made in the Confederate line. The 31st Illinois rushed into the breach and secured the escape route without significant resistance. COL John Logan noted the demoralizing effect of the artillery by stating that “the enemy gave way before us without firing a gun”. The stage was set for a wild chase to the transports.
Having pushed aside the Confederate defenders the Union forces mad a break for their boats. In the confusion the 27th Illinois and a portion of the cavalry returned to the route they had taken in thus becoming seperated from the main body that was taking the more direct route on the main road. To accomplish the desired speed two of the captured artillery pieces were spiked and left behind. When they reached the landing site they found that the security detail (2 companies of the 7th Iowa and three companies of the 22nd Illinois) that had been placed at the site was also missing. As the troops were hustled on board messengers were sent to recover the absent men. After an hour the security detail was found guarding a road to the south. CPT Detrick, the detail commander, wrote that he had been ordered down the road by one of Grant’s aides. They were put aboard as the enemy column closed on the landing site. The growing threat caused the boats to begin pulling away from the shore without the 27th Illinois. The last aboard was Grant who barely managed to get onto the boat as troops fired into the enemy from the railings.
The delay caused by the absent Union troops allowed time for the Confederates to regroup. They took good advantage of the opportunity granted them. The Confederates regathered themselves and took up the chase. Cheatham ordered COL Smith, arriving with the second wave of his brigade, “forward at double-quick, hoping to arrest the flying column of the enemy”. They arrived shortly after the final Union troops had been loaded. polk ordered the 154th Tennessee “along the river bank” to deliver fire into the boats as they were casting off. The Union gunboats, Lexington and Tyler, returned and opened fire on the Confederates. Polk saw victory “in possession of the field” and determined that further efforts were worthless. At sunset he ordered his “troops to retire”.
Meanwhile COL Napoleon Buford and the 27th Illinois remained stranded. Seeing the “steamboats were all in advance steaming towards Cairo” Buford sent his Adjutant, on a borrowed horse, to charge forward and attempt to signal the boats. The aide was able to reach the steamer “Chancellor”. The boat was turned around and under guard of the two gunboats returned to pick up Buford’s command. The men were loaded without further incident. The only thing left was to do at Belmont was gather the wounded and prisoners and bury the dead.Battle of Belmont (Campaign Series)