No one expected Grant’s November 6, 1861, attack on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. The firepower and ultimate prize was high on the opposite bluff, known as the Iron Banks, which rose above Columbus, Kentucky. There, a string of bullpen forts, earthworks and artillery was commanded by Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, an Episcopalian bishop called both “Old Granny” and “a prince among men”, depending on who was speaking.
Polk’s eyes and ears on the Missouri side were posted at Belmont’s Camp Johnston, and Grant targeted this forward point of observation to initiate his green recruits. Their first fight would be a demonstration against Columbus without the risk of actually attacking the Gibraltar of the West, thereby minimizing potential losses. At the end of the day, Grant succeeded in taking and destroying the Camp Johnston before reinforcements from Columbus forced the immediate Federal withdrawal, and Grant and his men reboarded their river transports and returned to Cairo, Illinois.
Belmont was a small, indecisive battle, notable to some only because they consider it Grant’s first “victory” (that intangible something that Confederates also claim, since they held the ground at day’s end). But to the soldiers who fought in it, to the medical staff and volunteers who followed in its wake, and to the civilians caught in the middle, Belmont was as important as any other battle fought in the war.
Grant’s expeditionary forces landed above Belmont early in the morning, spread out from the river, advanced and engaged the enemy. By two that afternoon, the Star Spangled Banner was flying above Camp Johnston, and Grant’s men were celebrating, to the point of being out of control. Grant sought to put a quick end to the ransacking and ordered the camp torched. He was unaware that some Confederate invalids were still in the tents, and were subsequently burned alive, but the Southern papers would claim it a deliberate act on Grant’s part.
Dr. John Hill Brinton, who served with Grant, described his Belmont experience in his Personal Memoirs of John H. Brinton, Major and Surgeon U.S.V. 1861-1865 (pub. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1914). Brinton established a field hospital in a local cabin, with orders that the property of its Southern-sympathizing inhabitants be protected. His act of consideration would be repaid later that day, when he was in danger of capture and came across his secesh hostess, who had sought shelter with a neighbor. “Bitter rebel as she was, she was grateful for what I had done for her, and, seeing me, she volunteered to send her young son along to show me the way to the road, whence I could reach the point of the morning’s disembarkation.” (Personal Memoirs, p.86)
While Dr. Brinton was trying to reach the Union lines, Confederate prisoners being held there were babysitting an infant girl found abandoned in the woods by a Federal soldier who would take her back to Bird’s Point (across from Cairo). When no one answered the newspaper notices, she was adopted by a childless German couple who named her Emma Sylvester (“found in the woods”—footnote, p. 243. The Battle of Belmont—Grant Strikes North by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr., 1991).
Dr. Brinton also made it back to the Federal transports, though minus his sword and surgical instruments. The first, he had left at the field hospital after discovering that a missing scabbard tip was letting his sword prick the “vicious roan horse” he was trying to ride. His personal surgical instruments had disappeared with his frightened young orderly, last seen running into the woods, holding the heavy package above his head as protection from artillery fire. The instruments were captured with the orderly, but when Grant attempted an exchange for a captured Confederate mount (a pretty Arabian with silver mane and tail), he was told that the instruments had gone south with a Mississippi surgeon. The flashy pony was then sold for a trifle and sent north to its new home in Chicago.
Casualties and losses at Belmont totaled 1,248: 607 Union (120 dead, 383 wounded, 104 missing/captured) and 641 Confederate (105 dead, 419 wounded, 117 missing/captured). After the battle, Grant would be called a “genius”, a “butcher”, and “incompetent”, depending on who was speaking. Dr. Brinton witnessed Grant in action and said in his memoirs, “Of the many who have written of him, made speeches about him, applauded him, and flattered him, few, very few are left who saw him, and watched him, and studied him as I did. From the very first, he attracted me, and I felt very soon, and indeed at the time of the battle of Belmont, Mo., wrote home, that the man had come who would finish this war, should he have the chance.”
© 2011 Anita Quick, All Rights Reserved.
This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.