The Battle of Belmont, fought along the Mississippi River on November 7, 1861, is often cited as General U.S. Grant’s first major battle. There are several angles to consider with regard to how well the future General-in-Chief performed, and even with regard to who won the battle. Perhaps historian Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., in his work The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South, summarized the action best as a strategic diversion from Grant’s advance down the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers months later. As the war progressed the the newspapers heralds of that November faded to whispers with larger and more important battles in 1862.
If the memory of the battle faded with time, fittingly perhaps, the traces of the battlefield likewise were obscured with time due to several factors. Most guide books today simply mention the battle’s location as opposite Columbus, Kentucky, and recommend a tour of the preserved earthworks on Iron Bluffs in that town. Only recently has the Missouri Department of Natural Resources offered any interpretation at Belmont. But even at that, the field is well off the beaten path for any visitor. Descriptions of the battlefield range from “pristine,” which I call into question, to “lost with time.” I think the truth lies somewhere in between. There are bits of ground which a keen observer can relate to the battle.
“Old Man River” has walked over the battlefield countless times, washing away many place-marks such as roads and fields. The Army Corps of Engineers built levees and later dikes to constrain the river, and in the process altering the shoreline. Yet the bends north and south of Belmont straightened out over time, isolating two pockets of Kentucky on the Missouri shore.
The town of Belmont grew, thrived, then died in the years after the war. It became a lively trans-shipping point between riverboats and railroad lines. With the decline of the St. Louis – Iron Mountain & Southern line, the town was left with an empty railroad grade and little river traffic. Left behind were foundation stones and a grain elevator. Farmers have turned the heavy river bottom timber into fields of wheat, cotton, and soybeans. And with that, some of the ridges and sloughs mentioned by the combatants were leveled.
Given those factors, the battlefield visitor today must used a bit of imagination, to visualize the terrain over which the forces under Polk, Pillow, and Grant fought. A proper starting point for such perspective is the most often used battle map, from the Official Records Atlas.
The frustrating part, as with many OR maps, is lack of scale. The orientation has the north seeking arrow pointing to the left, which is somewhat disorienting, but made sense from the standpoint of U.S. Grant’s after action report (written well after the battle mind you!). The key points of reference are:
- The town of Columbus on the Kentucky shore (upper right corner).
- The Iron Bluffs above the town.
- The town of Belmont on the right center on the Missouri shore.
- The Confederate camp just north (left) of Belmont.
- The pond and slough running across the lower center part of the map.
- The Hunter Farm in the lower left.
- And of course the sweeping bend of the Mississippi River from left to right.
Now before I get too far ahead of things, I have problems with this map with regard to the topography. A very accurate survey was conducted just prior to the war, by none other than Captain A. A. Humphreys. Yes, that Humphreys, later Chief of Staff for the Army of the Potomac. But just before the war, he led a team of engineers tasked with providing an engineering solution to river channel maintenance along the Mississippi. The report was not published until 1867, and detailed the most minute points of the river hydrology. Unfortunately while several chapters of the report are available in digits, the survey maps are not. (I’ve got a lead on those, and with some persistence shall post those at some later point. There’s also several sidebars about this survey I’m itching to tell, but alas it is off topic!)
The next set of river survey maps date from 1890, produced for the Mississippi River Commission.
I’ve added, over the original, red arrow notions for the important landmarks and a green box approximating the area covered by the OR map. What I do like about this map are the elevation lines. Often this close to the river, in the bottom lands, the terrain rise and fall is ever so slight. But with the details offered here, we can glimpse the old river scars, flood scours, and natural levees that were referred to in some of the battle reports as ridges. The slough seen from the OR map actually appears as a fold cutting nearly across the “peninsula” of Belmont Point. Note also the straight line to the left of the map, which is the railroad completed after the war.
Compare that 1890s map to a modern satellite image.
This time the approximate area of the OR map is in red, with key points indicated by white arrows to better stand out against the “green.” First off, notice the river bend on the north edge of the map. The river has bypassed that (and also Wolf Island to the south), now heading through a shallower bend. However, the two “islands” that now are part of the Missouri shore remain parts of Kentucky, witnessed by the yellow state boundary line still snaking around the old river course. That boundary was confirmed by a US Supreme Court ruling in 1870, and served as a precedence for similar boundary resolutions at other points along the river. The ruling defined the boundary as the river’s main channel as it existed at the time the State of Kentucky was created. For my purposes, that yellow line makes a handy point of reference of the old river channel location.
At any rate, the location where Grant’s men put ashore is today a land-locked spot in a field. Likewise the point in the river where Commander Walke’s gunboats fired on the Confederate fortifications is now a wooded thicket near the new river course. A lighter colored sandy wash is a trace of the slough and pond that factored into the Federal route into and out of Belmont. I’ve also pointed out some good examples of river scars to the southwest of Belmont.
So is there anything worth seeing at Belmont? Well sort of.
Looking from Missouri Highway 80 to the north across the battle area. At the time of the battle, this was heavily timbered bottom land. In this vicinity, the 27th Illinois, commanded by Col. Napoleon B. Buford, marched along a road to catch the main Confederate line on the south flank, helping to collapse the initial defense. The far tree line in the center and left edges the old river bottom. Thus across that ground the rest of the Federal line sparred with Pillow’s Confederates. The “pond” was likely to the left of this view. The field is private property, but the land owner has allowed reenactments and tours.
Looking south from the state marker location (linked above). The only easily identified reminder of the town is a grain elevator standing beside the highway. Picking up the route of the 27th Illinois again, Buford’s men plus a detachment of cavalry turned up an old road into Belmont, then advanced into the fallen timber that surrounded the Confederate camp north of Belmont.
Based on the location of Belmont and the old railroad trace, the Confederate camp must have been to the north of the marker location. Likely the spot was to the left of the road in this view. Today the area is a dead end at the river bank. However this view also illustrates to good effect what “timbered river bottom” looks like – trees and brush. The land beyond this point is private property.
But perhaps the main viewpoint the battlefield stomper will head out for is looking across the river at the Iron Bluffs of Columbus. Yes, Belmont is still an active towhead, and you will often find barges tied up there. Notice the redish hue to the bluffs on the far shore, and the pavilions in the park. The town of Columbus actually stood just south of the bluffs, to the right of this photo. After the great 1927 floods, the town was relocated on top of the bluffs. For a good photo tour of the Kentucky side, I recommend a blog entry over on Nick Kurtz’s site.
As you can see from the photos, Belmont is not a “pristine” field over which the student can easily study a battle. Even pinpointing the actual battlefield is somewhat difficult. And to this day, visiting the site is subject to the whims of high water. I can recall times (particularly in 1993) when cars could not pass over the levee, some three miles to the west. Yes, the battlefield is drastically altered from its wartime appearance. But in this case, it is the Mississippi River that has done most of the changes.
Nathaniel Chears Hughes, Jr. The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Andrew Atkinson Humphreys and Henry Larcom Abbot. Report Upon the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River. Chapters 2, 6, and 7. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1867.
Henry Walke. Naval Scenes and Reminiscences of the Civil War in the United States, on the Southern and Western Waters. New York: F.R. Reed and Company, 1877.
John M. Barry. Rising tide: the great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Robert Sidney Douglas. A History of Southeast Missouri. Volume I. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1912.
Lewis Naphtali Dembitz. A Treatise on Land Titles in the United States. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing, 1895. (Page 94 has the reference to Missouri vs. Kentucky with regard to Wolf Island.)
United States War Department. War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Volume 3, (Serial 3), pages 266-364. And from the Atlas of the same series, Plate IV.