Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant

I had no orders which contemplated an attack by the National
troops, nor did I intend anything of the kind when I started out
from Cairo; but after we started I saw that the officers and men
were elated at the prospect of at last having the opportunity of
doing what they had volunteered to do–fight the enemies of their
country. I did not see how I could maintain discipline, or
retain the confidence of my command, if we should return to
Cairo without an effort to do something. Columbus, besides
being strongly fortified, contained a garrison much more
numerous than the force I had with me. It would not do,
therefore, to attack that point. About two o’clock on the
morning of the 7th, I learned that the enemy was crossing troops
from Columbus to the west bank to be dispatched, presumably,
after Oglesby. I knew there was a small camp of Confederates at
Belmont, immediately opposite Columbus, and I speedily resolved
to push down the river, land on the Missouri side, capture
Belmont, break up the camp and return. Accordingly, the pickets
above Columbus were drawn in at once, and about daylight the
boats moved out from shore. In an hour we were debarking 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, is
low and in places marshy and cut up with sloughs. The soil is
rich and the timber large and heavy. There were some small
clearings between Belmont and the point where we landed, but
most of the country was covered with the native forests. We
landed in front of a cornfield. When the debarkation commenced,
I took a regiment down the river to post it as a guard against
surprise. At that time I had no staff officer who could be
trusted with that duty. In the woods, at a short distance below
the clearing, I found a depression, dry at the time, but which at
high water became a slough or bayou. I placed the men in the
hollow, gave them their instructions and ordered them to remain
there until they were properly relieved. These troops, with the
gunboats, were to protect our transports.

Up to this time the enemy had evidently failed to divine our
intentions. From Columbus they could, of course, see our
gunboats and transports loaded with troops. But the force from
Paducah was threatening them from the land side, and it was
hardly to be expected that if Columbus was our object we would
separate our troops by a wide river. They doubtless thought we
meant to draw a large force from the east bank, then embark
ourselves, land on the east bank and make a sudden assault on
Columbus before their divided command could be united.

About eight o’clock we started from the point of debarkation,
marching by the flank. After moving in this way for a mile or a
mile and a half, I halted where there was marshy ground covered
with a heavy growth of timber in our front, and deployed a large
part of my force as skirmishers. By this time the enemy
discovered that we were moving upon Belmont and sent out troops
to meet us. Soon after we had started in line, his skirmishers
were encountered and fighting commenced. This continued,
growing fiercer and fiercer, for about four hours, the enemy
being forced back gradually until he was driven into his camp.
Early in this engagement my horse was shot under me, but I got
another from one of my staff and kept well up with the advance
until the river was reached.

The officers and men engaged at Belmont were then under fire for
the first time. Veterans could not have behaved better than they
did up to the moment of reaching the rebel camp. At this point
they became demoralized from their victory and failed to reap
its full reward. The enemy had been followed so closely that
when he reached the clear ground on which his camp was pitched
he beat a hasty retreat over the river bank, which protected him
from our shots and from view. This precipitate retreat at the
last moment enabled the National forces to pick their way
without hinderance through the abatis–the only artificial
defence the enemy had. The moment the camp was reached our men
laid down their arms and commenced rummaging the tents to pick
up trophies. Some of the higher officers were little better
than the privates. They galloped about from one cluster of men
to another and at every halt delivered a short eulogy upon the
Union cause and the achievements of the command.

All this time the troops we had been engaged with for four
hours, lay crouched under cover of the river bank, ready to come
up and surrender if summoned to do so; but finding that they were
not pursued, they worked their way up the river and came up on
the bank between us and our transports. I saw at the same time
two steamers coming from the Columbus side towards the west
shore, above us, black–or gray–with soldiers from boiler-deck
to roof. Some of my men were engaged in firing from captured
guns at empty steamers down the river, out of range, cheering at
every shot. I tried to get them to turn their guns upon the
loaded steamers above and not so far away. My efforts were in
vain. At last I directed my staff officers to set fire to the
camps. This drew the fire of the enemy’s guns located on the
heights of Columbus. They had abstained from firing before,
probably because they were afraid of hitting their own men; or
they may have supposed, until the camp was on fire, that it was
still in the possession of their friends. About this time, too,
the men we had driven over the bank were seen in line up the
river between us and our transports. The alarm “surrounded” was
given. The guns of the enemy and the report of being surrounded,
brought officers and men completely under control. At first some
of the officers seemed to think that to be surrounded was to be
placed in a hopeless position, where there was nothing to do but
surrender. But when I announced that we had cut our way in and
could cut our way out just as well, it seemed a new revelation
to officers and soldiers. They formed line rapidly and we
started back to our boats, with the men deployed as skirmishers
as they had been on entering camp. The enemy was soon
encountered, but his resistance this time was feeble. Again the
Confederates sought shelter under the river banks. We could not
stop, however, to pick them up, because the troops we had seen
crossing the river had debarked by this time and were nearer our
transports than we were. It would be prudent to get them behind
us; but we were not again molested on our way to the boats.

From the beginning of the fighting our wounded had been carried
to the houses at the rear, near the place of debarkation. I now
set the troops to bringing their wounded to the boats. After
this had gone on for some little time I rode down the road,
without even a staff officer, to visit the guard I had stationed
over the approach to our transports. I knew the enemy had
crossed over from Columbus in considerable numbers and might be
expected to attack us as we were embarking. This guard would be
encountered first and, as they were in a natural intrenchment,
would be able to hold the enemy for a considerable time. My
surprise was great to find there was not a single man in the
trench. Riding back to the boat I found the officer who had
commanded the guard and learned that he had withdrawn his force
when the main body fell back. At first I ordered the guard to
return, but finding that it would take some time to get the men
together and march them back to their position, I countermanded
the order. Then fearing that the enemy we had seen crossing the
river below might be coming upon us unawares, I rode out in the
field to our front, still entirely alone, to observe whether the
enemy was passing. The field was grown up with corn so tall and
thick as to cut off the view of even a person on horseback,
except directly along the rows. Even in that direction, owing
to the overhanging blades of corn, the view was not extensive. I
had not gone more than a few hundred yards when I saw a body of
troops marching past me not fifty yards away. I looked at them
for a moment and then turned my horse towards the river and
started back, first in a walk, and when I thought myself
concealed from the view of the enemy, as fast as my horse could
carry me. When at the river bank I still had to ride a few
hundred yards to the point where the nearest transport lay.

The cornfield in front of our transports terminated at the edge
of a dense forest. Before I got back the enemy had entered this
forest and had opened a brisk fire upon the boats. Our men, with
the exception of details that had gone to the front after the
wounded, were now either aboard the transports or very near
them. Those who were not aboard soon got there, and the boats
pushed off. I was the only man of the National army between the
rebels and our transports. The captain of a boat that had just
pushed out but had not started, recognized me and ordered the
engineer not to start the engine; he then had a plank run out
for me. My horse seemed to take in the situation. There was no
path down the bank and every one acquainted with the Mississippi
River knows that its banks, in a natural state, do not vary at
any great angle from the perpendicular. My horse put his fore
feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and with his
hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted aboard
the boat, twelve or fifteen feet away, over a single gang
plank. I dismounted and went at once to the upper deck.

The Mississippi River was low on the 7th of November, 1861, so
that the banks were higher than the heads of men standing on the
upper decks of the steamers. The rebels were some distance back
from the river, so that their fire was high and did us but
little harm. Our smoke-stack was riddled with bullets, but
there were only three men wounded on the boats, two of whom were
soldiers. When I first went on deck I entered the captain’s room
adjoining the pilot-house, and threw myself on a sofa. I did not
keep that position a moment, but rose to go out on the deck to
observe what was going on. I had scarcely left when a musket
ball entered the room, struck the head of the sofa, passed
through it and lodged in the foot.

When the enemy opened fire on the transports our gunboats
returned it with vigor. They were well out in the stream and
some distance down, so that they had to give but very little
elevation to their guns to clear the banks of the river. Their
position very nearly enfiladed the line of the enemy while he
was marching through the cornfield. The execution was very
great, as we could see at the time and as I afterwards learned
more positively. We were very soon out of range and went
peacefully on our way to Cairo, every man feeling that Belmont
was a great victory and that he had contributed his share to it.

Our loss at Belmont was 485 in killed, wounded and missing.
About 125 of our wounded fell into the hands of the enemy. We
returned with 175 prisoners and two guns, and spiked four other
pieces. The loss of the enemy, as officially reported, was 642
men, killed, wounded and missing. We had engaged about 2,500
men, exclusive of the guard left with the transports. The enemy
had about 7,000; but this includes the troops brought over from
Columbus who were not engaged in the first defence of Belmont.

The two objects for which the battle of Belmont was fought were
fully accomplished. The enemy gave up all idea of detaching
troops from Columbus. His losses were very heavy for that
period of the war. Columbus was beset by people looking for
their wounded or dead kin, to take them home for medical
treatment or burial. I learned later, when I had moved further
south, that Belmont had caused more mourning than almost any
other battle up to that time. The National troops acquired a
confidence in themselves at Belmont that did not desert them
through the war.

The day after the battle I met some officers from General Polk’s
command, arranged for permission to bury our dead at Belmont and
also commenced negotiations for the exchange of prisoners. When
our men went to bury their dead, before they were allowed to land
they were conducted below the point where the enemy had engaged
our transports. Some of the officers expressed a desire to see
the field; but the request was refused with the statement that
we had no dead there.

While on the truce-boat I mentioned to an officer, whom I had
known both at West Point and in the Mexican war, that I was in
the cornfield near their troops when they passed; that I had
been on horseback and had worn a soldier’s overcoat at the
time. This officer was on General Polk’s staff. He said both
he and the general had seen me and that Polk had said to his
men, “There is a Yankee; you may try your marksmanship on him if
you wish,” but nobody fired at me.

Belmont was severely criticised in the North as a wholly
unnecessary battle, barren of results, or the possibility of
them from the beginning. If it had not been fought, Colonel
Oglesby would probably have been captured or destroyed with his
three thousand men. Then I should have been culpable indeed.

CHAPTER XXI.

GENERAL HALLECK IN COMMAND–COMMANDING THE DISTRICT OF
CAIRO–MOVEMENT ON FORT HENRY–CAPTURE OF FORT HENRY.

While at Cairo I had frequent opportunities of meeting the rebel
officers of the Columbus garrison. They seemed to be very fond
of coming up on steamers under flags of truce. On two or three
occasions I went down in like manner. When one of their boats
was seen coming up carrying a white flag, a gun would be fired
from the lower battery at Fort Holt, throwing a shot across the
bow as a signal to come no farther. I would then take a steamer
and, with my staff and occasionally a few other officers, go down
to receive the party. There were several officers among them
whom I had known before, both at West Point and in Mexico.
Seeing these officers who had been educated for the profession
of arms, both at school and in actual war, which is a far more
efficient training, impressed me with the great advantage the
South possessed over the North at the beginning of the
rebellion. They had from thirty to forty per cent. of the
educated soldiers of the Nation. They had no standing army and,
consequently, these trained soldiers had to find employment with
the troops from their own States. In this way what there was of
military education and training was distributed throughout their
whole army. The whole loaf was leavened.

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