On the Water
Because the Mississippi River separated the opposing forces from the battlefield water transportation was critical. The Union forces needed to move troops across the river under the guns of the Confederate stronghold at Columbus. The threat of these guns forced Grant to make his landings several miles from his objective. The time taken to march that distance allowed the Confederate troops to gain warning of their approach and appeal for the help that eventually won back the lost camp. Under the protective umbrella of the big guns the Confederate reinforcements could make an uncontested trip across the river and be delivered to the exact point where they were needed.
The movement on the water began at 0300 when the Union gunboats Lexington and Tyler “started down the river for the purpose of engaging their batteries at Columbus.” This foray was stopped short by a natural enemy. A dense fog that made navigation impossible and forced the two boats to turn around and return to the starting point. The two boats started out again at 0600 as escorts to the convoy of six steamers that were carrying Grants forces across the river. The landing were accomplished “just without…the range of their guns.” After disembarking the troops the two gunboats, both converted timberclad sidewheelers, moved downriver to “engage their batteries”. After an exchange of fire in which the Union boats fired “several rounds” they again backed away. The unexpected range of the batteries caused Captain Walke to move the boats and the now empty steamers further up the river.
As the sounds of battle grew Captain Walke decided to make another run at the batteries to divert any possible fire that might assist the Confederates fighting for their camp. At 1000 he steamed his boats down the river “this time going nearly a quarter mile nearer”. His boldness was answered when a 24 lb shot from the enemy batteries passed through the Tyler obliquely taking off the head of Seaman Michael Adams and wounding two others. The boats beat a hasty retreat with Captain Walke noting that it was “providential that we escaped with so little damage.”
After failing to make any headway against the batteries the two boats turned their firepower on to the Confederate infantry that was challenging the reembarkation of Grant’s raiding force. As the convoy pulled away General McClernand was made aware of the missing soldiers and ordered their return. They managed to recover “seeming nearly all that was left behind.” For their actions the local Naval commander CPT Andrew H. Foote noted that the two warships had “rendered the most effective service.”
Union Naval Assets
- Lexington (448 tons with 2-32lb and 4-8″ guns)
- Tyler (575 tons with 1-32 lb and 6-8″ guns)
- Aleck Scott
- Keystone State
- Belle Memphis
- James Montgomery
- Rob Roy
Confederate Naval Assets
- Harry W. R. Hill
Conclusion and Assessment
The Battle of Belmont was a short vicious little fight that gained nothing for either side. Grant would later claim that this was a raid that accomplished all that he set out to do. The disruption caused to the Confederate activities was barely noticed. The only thing gained was an insight into a commander that would rise to power. Here Grant demonstrated all the traits that Lincoln found so wanting in his other senior leaders. He was tenaciously aggressive, decisive, and bold in the face of the enemy. He also displayed a real talent for tactical planning. This small battle included a diversionary column (although a rather weak effort by Smith), a secondary objective (Oglesby’s column), interservice coordination, and the ability to alter his plans on the fly. It is no surprise that he would eventually gain command of all Union armies.
Polk, despite his reputation as a military lightweight, handled this affair quite well. At first notice of Grant’s intentions he gathered troops (Pillow) for reinforcing the camp and did not hesitate to send them. He correctly evaluated threat (or lack of threat) posed by Smith’s inland march and further reinforced his troops (Cheatham) to the point where they could counterattack and drive off the Union forces. The only real negative was the inability to close the trap on Grant’s retreating forces. In the final analysis nothing was gained by either side but a enlarged casualty list and some experience for the green troops and leaders.Battle of Belmont (Campaign Series)