November 6, 1861 (Wednesday)
According to General Ulysses S. Grant, the previous day, he had received a dispatch from headquarters in St. Louis that Rebels under General Leonidas Polk near Columbus, Kentucky were sending reinforcements to the Missouri State Guard in the southwestern part of Missouri. Grant was ordered to immediately make a demonstration against Columbus in hopes of stemming the tide of Rebels thought to be flooding all the way across southern Missouri.1
There’s been much conjecture over whether the orders were real or if Grant fabricated them upon writing his final report. The supposed dispatch from St. Louis has never been found. What’s likely is that Grant saw the build up of Confederate troops in Belmont and Columbus as threatening to his command in Cairo, which had been largely ignored under General Fremont. Whether Grant received such an order insisting that Rebels were sending reinforcements from Columbus to Price in southwestern Missouri is up for debate. What is fairly clear, however, is that Grant wanted to put a stop to the Confederate build up in Columbus and Belmont. With that in mind, Grant prepared to make demonstrations against Columbus. All the while, his mind was probably set upon attacking.2
Grant already had some troops on the move. Col. Oglesby’s column had been ordered to assist in destroying General Thompson’s Missouri Rebels. Grant sent word to Oglesby to turn towards Columbus at soon as he could. He was to communicate with Grant at Belmont, on the Missouri side of the river, opposite Columbus. To assist Oglesby, Grant sent an Illinois regiment under Col. W.H.L. Wallace, from Bird’s Point.
Having formulated a plan, Grant sent word to General Charles Ferguson Smith, a pre-war hero of Grant’s, to move his force from Paducah and make a stab towards Columbus as Grant was readying an expedition to “menace Belmont.” If Smith could keep the Rebels in Columbus from shifting troops across the river to Belmont, it would make Grant’s menacing even more menacing. Smith complied right away, getting his brigade into two columns heading south
There were also Union troops under Grant’s command Fort Holt, Kentucky and Cairo, Illinois. From Holt, Grant dispatched Col. John Cook to move south along the Kentucky side of the Mississippi.3
The troops in Cairo, however, were the main force. Under General John Alexander McClernand, an Illinois politician whose only military experience had been a short stint in the Blackhawk War, the brigade, 3,000 strong, were loaded onto steamers at Cairo.
Joining the steamers were the gunboats USS Lexington and Tyler, both former commercial side-wheel steamers that were purchased by the War Department for use on the Mississippi. These were the same gunboats that Grant used to seize Paducah in early September.
Under cover of the evening dimness, Grant, along with McClernand’s Brigade and the gunboats, steamed nine miles south on the Mississippi, stopping on the Kentucky shore to confuse the enemy into thinking that he was about to attack Columbus.4
It was confusing. Grant took no effort to cover his movements, though his intentions were anybody’s guess. By the evening of this date, he had seven different columns of troops fanned out wide on either side of the Mississippi.
Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding at Bowling Green, Kentucky, had no intention of sending reinforcements to cover either Price or Thompson of the Missouri State Guard. On the contrary, he had ordered General Pillow at Columbus to head east, away from Missouri, towards Forts Henry and Donelson, with his 5,000-man division. After some protest, Pillow assented and spent this day readying his men for the move, which would happen at dawn the following day. This move would sap 5,000 troops away from the very city Grant was about to demonstrate (or more) against.5
General Polk, under Johnston, but above Pillow, was disgusted to be losing Pillow’s Division. He also believed that he had fulfilled his duty and promise to stay in command until President Davis found a General to head the department. Since General Johnston was now established, Polk reasoned that he could, at last, go back to his former calling as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. His resignation would, of course, have to first be accepted by Davis, and until then, Polk would remain firmly in command in Columbus.6
At 2am, as the Union steamers and gunboats sat on the Kentucky shore, nine miles south of Cairo, Grant claimed to receive another dispatch. This one, from Col. W.H.L. Wallace in Charleston, Missouri, asserted that the Rebels were ferrying reinforcements from Columbus to Belmont. Learning of this, Grant wrote in his final report, that “this information determined me to attack vigorously his forces at Belmont.” Interestingly, Wallace never filed an official report of his own.7
Confederates were not, however, ferrying reinforcements from Columbus to Belmont. In fact, all that was in the small Missouri town was an Arkansas regiment, a battalion of Mississippi cavalry and a battery of artillery. None of them knew a thing about Grant’s advance and certainly no reinforcements were joining them as they slept through the night along the Mississippi River.8
What might remain most telling is that while other generals had made excuses as to why they could not fight, Grant was, it seems, making excuses as to why he had to.
President Davis Elected President!
The citizens of the Confederate States of America were, on this date, given the privilege of voting for their President and Vice-President. The Richmond Daily-Dispatch put it best:
For the first time the people of the Confederate States will to-day elect their own President and Vice President. There is no opposition to either of the candidates for these high positions. But it is most important that this fact should not be permitted to keep a single voter from the polls. Every loyal citizen of the Confederate States should feel that he has a duty to discharge to his country to-day by voting for the President and Vice President, and thus ensuring a full vote, and thereby letting the world see that the new Government is the work of the People of the South, and not of a faction, as is falsely pretended by the Yankee despotism.9
As he was unopposed, he was victorious.
Weather “Too Fresh” for Attack
At Port Royal, Du Pont’s Naval fleet and the infantry under General Thomas Sherman were ready for a fight and a landing. The weather, however, was not. Throughout the morning, the wind had picked up. By the time of the attack, it was “too fresh,” according to Du Pont, and the attack was scrapped until the following day.10
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p268. [↩]
- Author Jack Hurst, writing Men of Fire; Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign that Decided the Civil War insists that Grant completely fabricated this dispatch from St. Louis. Grant did this, says Hurst, to prove that he was an aggressive commander. Rumors and reports of Grant’s drinking were flying fast and furious and this was supposedly Grant’s response to them. [↩]
- The Battle of Belmont: Grant strikes South by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p269. [↩]
- The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p522. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p270. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p355-357; 359. [↩]
- The Richmond Daily-Dispatch, November 6, 1861. [↩]
- Success is All that was Expected: the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron by Robert M. Browning. [↩]