Catlin History Online
The Battle of Belmont
In the year 1861, during the Civil War, Union troops at Cairo, Illinois, commanded by Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant spent their time drilling and preparing for the fighting that was to come. Meanwhile, the Confederate troops were a short distance down the river at Columbus, Kentucky.
Columbus was an important trading center and a strategic location for control of the Mississippi River. At the beginning of September 1861 Confederate General Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus and started building extensive fortifications to defend the Mississippi River.
On November 1, 1861, General Grant commanded more than 20,000 men who were mostly inexperienced but ready and anxious to meet the Confederate rebels. He was directed by headquarters to make a demonstration on both sides of the Mississippi in order to detain rebel reinforcements from leaving Columbus.
On the evening of November 6, 1871, General Grant and just over 3,000 men left Cairo on steamers convoyed by two gunboats. The troops were Brigadier General John McClernand's Brigade, which was made up of the 27th, 30th, and 31st Illinois Infantries, Captain John Dollins' Independent Company of Illinois Cavalry, Delano's Company of Adams County, Illinois, Cavalry under Lieutenant J. K. Catlin, as well as Dougherty's Brigade, consisting of the 22nd Illinois Infantry and the 7th Iowa Infantry.
About two o'clock on the morning of November 7, Grant learned that the enemy was moving troops from Columbus to the west bank. He presumed that these were meant to detain Union troops that had been sent as reinforcements. He also knew there was a small camp of Confederates at Belmont, Missouri, immediately opposite Columbus. He decided to push down the river, land on the Mississippi side, capture Belmont, break up the camp, and return.
Camp Johnston at Belmont was created for the purpose of observation. One regiment of infantry, a battery of artillery and a squadron of cavalry occupied the camp. In order to command the approaches to this position by the batteries at Columbus, trees had been felled for some distance along the west bank and the fallen timber placed to form an obstruction against the advance of an enemy.
Grant and his troops disembarked on the west bank of the Mississippi, just out of range of the batteries at Columbus. The ground on the west shore of the river, opposite Columbus, was low and in places marshy. The soil was rich and the timber large and heavy. There were some small clearings between Belmont and the point where they landed but most of the country was covered with forest. They landed in front of a cornfield.
About eight o'clock the troops began the march towards Belmont. By 9 oíclock they were engaged. The fighting continued for about four hours until the Confederates were gradually driven back to their camp.
When Grantís men reached the camp they began ransacking it and celebrating their victory. In the meantime, the rebel troops that had been driven out lay crouched under cover of the riverbank waiting to surrender. When the rebels discovered that they were not being pursued, they worked their way up the river, reorganized and came up on the bank between Grants troops and their transports. At the same time, two steamers filled with rebel reinforcements were coming from the Columbus side of the river. Unable to gain control of his troops, Grant ordered his officers to set fire to the camps. This drew fire from Confederate cannon on the high bluff across the river.
The "surrounded" alarm was sounded to Grantís troops bringing the Union soldiers completely under control. At first they believed that because they were surrounded they would have to surrender, but Grant told them to cut their way out the same as they had cut their way in. The Union soldiers fought their way back upriver to their transport ships, with Grant the last to get on board. They returned to Cairo that evening.
The Battle of Belmont was General Grantís first battle of the Civil War. The estimated casualties totaled 1,464 total -- Union 498 and Confederation 966. Belmont is considered a Union victory because General Grant achieved his objective by destroying the camp at Belmont.
This website contains information about the Columbus-Belmont State Park in Kentucky. In October, during Civil War days, they have a re-enactment of the battle. The also have a museum with Civil War relics and a video presentation about the Battle at Belmont:
Daun Marrs is a volunteer on the CHS web staff
Catlin Historical Society