Ordered to make a feint toward Columbus, Ky., Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant sent troops across the Mississippi River to attack Belmont, Mo. In doing so, Grant was involved in a battle that both the Confederacy and the Union claimed as a victory.
With winter coming, both armies prepared to go into winter quarters. During this time, there were few battles or campaigns. Grant’s Federals were at Paducah, Ky., while Confederates under Major General Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus. Grant had hoped to attack Columbus but never got approval from Major General John C. Fremont. Instead, the two forces cautiously kept an eye on each other, conducting only limited demonstrations.
Fremont received information that Confederates were moving to reinforce their troops in Arkansas. Such a move could mean a campaign to capture Missouri. Fremont ordered Grant to move toward Columbus, thinking such a maneuver would force the Confederates to stay in their present location and not deploy to Arkansas.
Initially, Grant sent troops under Colonel Richard Oglesby into Missouri. Grant learned Confederate reinforcements were also moving into Missouri, and sent reinforcements of two brigades of infantry, two cavalry companies and an artillery battery.
Union soldiers were ferried across the Mississippi River to Belmont. Meanwhile, Polk decided to protect southern positions on each side of the Mississippi River, sending Confederate reinforcements to both Columbus and Belmont.
On Nov. 7, 1861, Grant’s force attacked Confederates northwest of Belmont. The Federals achieved initial success, driving the Confederates from their position. For most of the morning, fighting between raw troops of Confederate and Union armies swayed back and forth. It wasn’t until the afternoon that the Confederate line collapsed.
The Federals attacked Camp Johnston from three directions, causing a Confederate flight towards the Mississippi River. Grant’s raw recruits began to plunder the Confederate camp.
In an effort to stop his out of control troops, Grant ordered the camp burned. Some wounded Confederates left in tents were accidentally burned to death, bringing forth charges of willful murder of Confederate prisoners.
While the Federals returned to their transports with prisoners and captured guns, they were attacked by Confederate reinforcements that had just been ferried across the river. These reinforcements were the 11th Louisiana Infantry and 15th Tennessee Infantry. With his Federals trapped, Grant decided his troops “must cut our way out as we cut our way in.”
Grant was one of the last Federals to reach the transport ferry. Grant, an accomplished horseman, was forced to make his horse slide down the embankment and across a plank to escape capture.
One of the fallen Confederates at Belmont was Major Edward George Washington Butler Jr., of the 11th Louisiana Infantry. Butler’s father had also been a soldier and a ward of Andrew Jackson. His mother was the granddaughter of Martha Washington. Butler had grown up on the Dunboyne Plantation in Iberville Parish, Louisiana.
Early in the war, Butler drilled his soldiers constantly, earning him a less-than-favorable reputation with his soldiers. After the 11th Louisiana evolved from volunteers to soldiers, they began to respect and grudgingly appreciate Butler. At Belmont, the 11th Louisiana was one of the regiments that blocked Grant’s escape route to the Mississippi River.
The fallen Butler was taken from the battlefield and brought south. Butler’s grave can be found in Live Oak Cemetery in Pass Christian. Butler’s tombstone states, “Killed in Battle of Belmont.”
While both Confederate and Union armies claimed victory, the battle of Belmont was inconclusive. The most significant result from Belmont was it was Grant’s first battlefield command as a general.