November 7, 1861 (Thursday)
The crews of the Union fleet off Port Royal, South Carolina, prepared their ships for battle. The weather that had prevented the attack against Forts Beauregard and Walker the previous day had lifted and the sun shown brilliantly over the calm water as the fleet formed for attack.
They planned to attack both forts at once, employing a circular maneuver, firing upon one fort before passing around to fire on the other. As the attack began, with the first shot fired by the Rebels from Fort Walker, Union Flag Officer Du Pont’s plan seemed to be working. The ships fired broadsides into Walker, and as the Wabash, Du Pont’s flag ship, rounded south, towards Beauregard, she fired into the small Confederate fleet standing off nearby. The Rebel ships quickly dispersed.
The Wabash turned towards Fort Walker and the next ship, the Susquehanna, in line followed, firing. The plan then fell apart. The third ship in the line fell out to get a better shot upon Fort Beauregard. The rest of the ships in the line followed suit. Though Du Pont signaled for the ships to return to the original plan, only one did. Still, the Wabash and the Susquehanna retained their original course.
For over five hours the Union vessels pounded both Confederate forts as they returned fire. In Fort Walker, the supply of gun powder was quickly dwindling, and by 1:15pm, just as the Wabash was about to make her sixth run, the Rebel soldiers began to evacuate. This retreat signaled the end.
Fort Walker had taken the most punishment. As many as sixty Union shells had burst over the Rebel works each minute. In Fort Beauregard, the Confederates witnessed the retreat and though they still had some fight left in them, they were in danger of having their own retreat cut off and abandoned their fort.
Meanwhile, a small boat from the Wabash had made for Fort Walker under a flag of truce. When they arrived, they found the fort empty and a United States flag was hoisted above it. With this, Du Pont called a cease fire.
Both forts had been abandoned. The Union infantry that were to make the amphibious landing were still on their transports. With the Rebels gone, there was no plan for what to do next. Yes, Port Royal, a Southern port, was in the hands of the Union, but was there a next step? The South feared that Charleston or Savannah might be next, however, there was no “next.”
In both forts, eleven Confederates were dead with forty-seven wounded and four missing. The Union fleet suffered less, having eight killed and twenty-three wounded.1
Towards evening, after the Rebels had evacuated the forts, General Robert E. Lee had arrived from Richmond. There, he met General Roswell S. Ripley, who had been the commander of the Department of South Carolina. He told Lee of the battle and that there was nothing left to do but reestablish the commands farther inland.
All that Lee could do was try to gather enough troops to secure the railroad and bolster the defenses of Charleston and Savannah.2
Grant’s Raid on Belmont
Along the Mississippi River, a much smaller Union fleet carried the 3,000 troops of General Ulysses S. Grant downstream towards Belmont, Missouri. He had been ordered to make a demonstration upon Columbus, Kentucky, opposite Belmont, but was now determined to attack.
Confederate General Pillow’s Division had been ordered east towards Clarksville and began their march at dawn, just as Grant’s steamers were seen rounding a bend in the Mississippi. Quickly, General Polk, in command of the Rebels in Columbus, recalled Pillow and began feeding his regiments west, across the river. Grant had landed a force on the Missouri side, about three miles north of Belmont.
By the time Grant’s men had hacked their way through the dense underbrush to form a line of battle a mile north of town, Pillow’s entire division had made it across the river. While the Confederate right flank was safely anchored on the Mississippi, the left flank dangled in the open. Nevertheless, Grant struck Pillow’s right and center. The wilderness was so thick that, unless the troops were upon each other, the opposing side could not be seen.
The Confederate right witnessed charges and counter-charges, while the center wavered under a steady Union fire. Rebel artillery from atop the bluffs across the river poured down upon the Union troops during the fray, but the guns on the Missouri side quickly ran out of ammunition and had to withdraw.
Ammunition was running low all across the Confederate lines. Pillow was faced with two options: retreat or charge. He chose to charge. It was a heroic decision, but poorly executed. Nearly half the Rebels had left their bayonets back in camp. The charge itself was staggered, with some regiments advancing on their own, while others moved not at all.
With this, Pillow’s line collapsed and Union artillery opened upon the fleeing Rebels. In short order, Grant’s men had taken Belmont, the Confederate camp and a few hundred prisoners. Grant had captured tents, blankets and many other necessities, but had no wagons with which to haul them back to their transports. The Rebel guns atop the bluffs on the opposite bank made it clear that they could not remain in Belmont. It would have to be abandoned.
Grant ordered the camp and supplies to be torched. However, he was able to take with him horses, prisoners and six cannons.
While General Polk could not land reinforcements at Belmont, he instead landed them between Belmont and the Union transports, cutting off Grant’s line of retreat. It was too little, too late. The victorious Union troops charged through the thin Rebel line, leaving four of the captured cannons behind, but escaping, more or less, intact, with more and more Rebel reinforcements nipping at their heels.
The Confederates had outnumbered Grant’s troops by 2,000. With the Union troops seen steaming back north in their ships, the Rebels claimed Belmont as a victory. Having sacked the captured the camp and crushed Pillow’s line, the Union also claimed a victory in Belmont.
Casualties were nearly equal, but heavy, on both sides. There were 120 dead Union soldiers, with the wounded numbering 383, and 104 captured or missing. The Rebels had 105 killed, 419 wounded and 117 captured or missing.
The several columns of Union troops advancing south to demonstrate on Columbus were recalled as Grant’s transports returned to their base at Cairo well after dark.
In reality, the battle was inconclusive and fairly pointless. What it proved was that Grant could fight and held no fear of bloodying his hands.3
One of my favorite blogs, To the Sound of the Guns, also posted about Belmont today. It’s got some great pics of the battlefield in modern times and why it looks so different. Check it out here. Also, he’s got another post well worth checking out here.
- Success is All that was Expected: the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron by Robert M. Browning. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p312. [↩]
- Several sources helped with this. Grant Rises in the West; The First Year, 1861-1862 by Kenneth P. Williams is a really fun study, which I heartily recommend. Also of help was The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes. The interesting, but “needs to be cross-checked” Men of Fire by Jack Hurst, was also helpful. [↩]