When fighting erupted between Confederate and Union forces in Mississippi County, Missouri, few could have expected that one man, a newly-promoted Brigadier General, would emerge from obscurity and tragedy and begin his upward trajectory to the heights of American myth and legend. Nonetheless, at the end of the Battle of Belmont, that man—Ulysses S. Grant—had secured himself admiration from his commanders and established a brand of warfare that would later elevate him up the ranks and define the Union’s conduct of the war.
In the Western Theater, the Union embarrassment in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek led to changes in the command structure. The Pathfinder John Frémont was replaced by Henry W. Halleck as commander of the Department of the West, which comprised territory west of the Cumberland River in Kentucky. His counterpart commander, at the head of the Department of the Ohio—which encompassed the remainder of Kentucky and the entirety of Tennessee—was Don Carlos Buell. While both Buell and Halleck reported directly to General George McClellan approximately 800 miles to the east, they viewed each other as inferior and stoked a rivalry.[i] Halleck had been a competitor of McClellan’s for the top general slot given his experience and erudition (which earned him the moniker Old Brains), but Buell could take comfort in knowing that their commander, General McClellan, viewed Buell as being “the superior in practical ability as a soldier in the field.”[ii]
Both Halleck and Buell had their instructions from above to hold territory in Missouri and Kentucky as part of the effort to restore the Union.[iii] McClellan recognized, however, that Halleck had the more difficult role at this juncture given that he had to organize the chaos that the prior commander, Frémont, had left him—”a system of reckless expenditure and fraud, perhaps unheard of before in the history of the world.”[iv] He also was tasked with managing a red-haired brigadier named William Tecumseh Sherman, who told the Secretary of War that 200,000 troops would be necessary to secure the Mississippi Valley alone—an estimate that, taken together with Sherman’s propensity for fits of rage and melancholy, secured his relief from duty and sending to work under Halleck.[v] While Halleck generously called Sherman “stampeded,” McClellan had no such sympathy: “Sherman’s gone in the head,” was his diagnosis.[vi] Halleck’s sympathies led him to provide Sherman an indefinite leave of absence and relinquished him to the care of his wife at home.
Under Halleck was another Brigadier General, Ulysses S. Grant, who knew hardship just as well as his counterpart Sherman: after fighting in the Mexican-American War, he had struggled to adjust to civilian life and only became a brigadier through a stroke of luck.[vii] While he had to resign his commission after the Mexican-American War due to his habit of drinking, when the Civil War began, he was commissioned as a colonel of Illinois volunteers, then promoted to brigadier, a benefit of his relationship with U.S. Representative Elihu Washburne.[viii] Grant had proven himself to be a fighter in the Mexican-American War, but Halleck was cognizant of Grant’s reputation for taking to drink and reluctant to trust him.[ix]
After the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Grant and his men were ordered to “make a show of aggression along both sides of the Mississippi [River], keeping his troops ‘constantly moving back and forward . . . without, however, attacking the enemy.'”[x] While his men marched back and forth, Halleck received intelligence that Confederate General Leonidas Polk was sending reinforcements to General Sterling Price, posing a threat of a combined force campaigning through Missouri and pushing the state into the Confederacy.[xi] Grant, on November 6, 1861, packed 3,114 men consisting of “five infantry regiments, supported by two cavalry troops and a six-gun battery” steaming down the Mississippi River, where they tied up for the night on the eastern bank nine miles below Cairo, Illinois.[xii] At 2:00 AM, Grant received a message that Polk had sent a column toward his men, prompting Grant to launch a direct attack on Belmont, which was a steamboat landing on the Missouri side of the river just opposite Columbus, Kentucky, which was where Union intelligence concluded Confederates were gathering.[xiii]
In actuality, Union intelligence was not correct: Polk had no intention of reinforcing Price or staging an attack.[xiv] Without knowing this, Grant’s men marched off their transports three miles above Belmont at approximately 8:00 AM and saw their gunboats go downriver to fire on Confederate batteries resting on a ridge near Columbus.[xv] The men marched forward, and as they approached Belmont, they heard the fire from their gunboats shortly followed by musket fire coming at them from directly ahead.[xvi] Polk had learned of the coming attack and had reinforced Belmont with Tennessean Brigadier General Gideon Pillow and four regiments, whom had constructed fortifications as time allowed.[xvii] The forces, being roughly equal, experienced hard fighting, and the advantage was given to the Union given the element of surprise.[xviii] By this time, Grant had learned that even as his “heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat,” he kept his men going because “I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do.”[xix] He kept the six guns firing on the Confederates while pushing forward, and after two hours, the Confederates broke and took off toward the river in a panic.[xx] Even as more reinforcements were coming across the river from Columbus, the fleeing Confederates cried out to them not to land: “We are whipped! Go back!”[xxi] Fortunately for the Confederates, the reinforcements ignored those cries and landed, preparing to attack.
Grant’s men, who had not yet experienced warfare and its dynamics, did not pursue the Confederates to the banks of the river but had taken to looting the Confederate camp, thinking the battle had finished.[xxii] As the Confederate reinforcements formed a line and made their way up the hill, Grant ordered the Confederate camp to be set ablaze to discourage any further looting and attempted to reform the men to hold the line.[xxiii] When an aide came to Grant crying out that they were surrounded, Grant demonstrated his ability to remain cool under pressure, responding, “Well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in.”[xxiv] Polk, who had expected an attack on Columbus but through the Kentucky countryside rather than from Belmont, sent Brigadier General Benjamin F. Cheatham with three more regiments across the river to reinforce Pillow and his men.[xxv] Grant had already cut his men out of being surrounded and worked their way back to their transports save one regiment who instead marched upriver to be picked up later.[xxvi] Grant, last to board the transports, looked back and saw General Polk on horseback, who had told his men that he spotted a Yankee and solicited them to try their marksmanship on him if they wished.[xxvii] None accepted the offer.
The Battle of Belmont resulted in approximately 1,200 casualties split down the middle between the Union and Confederate men. Newspaper reports on the battle’s result varied depending on location, with some concluding a Union victory and others a Confederate one.[xxviii] However, a question could be found in several news reports of the battle: regardless of whether the Union had won, what had the battle achieved? There were no significant gains, territorial or otherwise, for either side. While the Confederates could argue that they kept control of both Belmont and Columbus, the Union men had no such argument.
These sentiments did not find their way to two most important places: Grant’s camp and the White House. Grant had shown that he would lead his men into battle even as the bullets flew over them and that he would be the last to leave the battlefield, to the pleasure of his men. To the pleasure of his president, he showed that he was willing to fight without fear or hesitation unlike McClellan who seemed to have a habit of it in his short time at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Grant, for the duration of the war, would only reinforce his reputation for fighting (so much that some accused him of being a butcher), but the nature of the entire conflict itself—with the Confederacy attempting a vigorous defense of its states—demanded Grant’s approach if the Union had any chance for victory.
[i] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 144.
[iii] Id. at 145.
[iv] See id. at 147.
[v] See id. at 148.
[vii] See id.
[viii] See id.
[ix] See id.
[x] See id. at 149.
[xi] See id.
[xii] See id.
[xiii] See id.
[xiv] See id. at 149-50.
[xv] See id.
[xvii] See id.
[xx] See id.
[xxi] Id. at 150-51.
[xxii] See id. at 151.
[xxiii] See id.
[xxv] See id.
[xxvi] See id. at 152.
[xxviii] See id.