Missouri, Mississippi County,
November 7, 1861
CS Major General Leonidas Polk held the Confederate bastion at Columbus, Kentucky, with 17,000 men and 148 guns. This stronghold on the east bank of the Mississippi effectively closed the river to all Union shipping. Polk’s counterpart, US Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, held a thin line of strategic bases between Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Cairo, Illinois, and Paducah, Kentucky, with 20,000 men. Grant’s orders were to cross into Missouri to cut off the escape of Meriwether “Jeff ” Thompson, a brigadier general in the Missouri State Guard, through the “boot heel” area of Missouri.
Grant put his command in motion: two columns advanced from Cairo and Paducah to demonstrate on Columbus while another struck west to stop Thompson. On November 6 Grant embarked on transports at Cairo with the main body of 3,000 troops. His objective was to capture Belmont, Missouri, across the Mississippi River from Columbus. The next morning the Federals disembarked at the Hunter farm, marched two miles southeast, and prepared to attack the Confederate encampment. As they took their positions in thick woods, four regiments of reinforcements from Kentucky commanded by CS Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow deployed opposite them along a low ridge protecting Camp Johnston. The Federals pressed through a cornfield, and Pillow countered with ineffective bayonet attacks. The Confederate line collapsed, and Grant captured their camp. His troops thought the battle was over and halted to loot the enemy encampment.
CS Brigadier General Frank Cheatham crossed the river from Columbus with two regiments and rallied the remnants of the Confederate force along the river bank north of the camp. The heavy guns from Columbus opened fire on the Union troops, catching them in a crossfire as Cheatham attacked their left flank. The Union line broke, and though briefly surrounded by the Confederates, the Federals fought their way through and retreated in disorder to the transports at the Hunter farm. The gunboats Tyler and Lexington fired on the pursuing Confederates as the Federals reboarded and returned to Cairo that night.
Grant’s first major battle as a commanding officer was a limited, but welcome, success because it was fought at a time of little activity by Union forces. Grant was noted in Washington as a fighting commander and was slated for higher command.
Estimated Casualties: 607 US, 641 CS