On the ride home, we stopped off at Columbus-Belmont State Park in Columbus, Kentucky. The park is a great example of moderating recreational use at a historic site. Erosion has cut through much of the extensive fortifications that lined the bluffs there in 1861. However, interpretation aids the visitor, explaining the significance of the Confederate fortifications as well as the battle that occurred at Belmont, Missouri on November 7, 1861.
Over the years, I’ve made many trips to the site. And I always pause at the overlooks along the river to consider the battle ranges, and to some degree the battlefield geometry. In late 1861, the Confederates could brag that the “Iron Bluffs” outside Columbus were more heavily fortified than any other defensive position, calling it the “Gibraltar of the West.” Heavy guns in the batteries aimed downriver to block any Federal gunboats that might attempt a run downstream.
When General Grant led a reconnaissance in force (or foray?) to Belmont, on the opposite bank, those guns engaged Federal gunboats rounding the bend. In an earlier post, I discussed the changes to the river channel over the years. At the time of the war, the river made a sharp bend from the west, named Lucas Bend, around Hunter’s Farm (McFadden’s Landing on some river charts). Range from the bluffs to that bend was close to 2500 yards; and about 3500 yards to Hunter’s Farm.
When Grant’s green troops pushed into the Confederate camp at Belmont, they entered an open area along the river opposite the bluffs. The location is an active towhead today. At the time of my visit, a string of barges lay at Belmont Landing.
The far shore looks heavily timbered. That is really a strip of woods close to the river bank, perhaps a couple hundred yards wide. Beyond that is open field. At the time of the Battle of Belmont, the bottom land was heavily timbered with a few open fields. So from a “point of view” the line of sight today is actually better than during the war, and the visitor still cannot see the ground over which the Federals advanced.
From my visit last year, here’s a view from the opposite side of the river taking in the bluffs.
The range from the bluffs to the landing is under 1000 yards.
On November 7, 1861, Confederate guns on the bluffs included a large 128-pdr rifled gun, christened “Lady Polk,” honoring commander General Leonidas Polk’s wife. The rifle was a Tredegar product using the form of a 10-inch Columbiad, bored to
6.4 8 inches and rifled. That gun could range the river bend upstream, and did so with success during the battle. However, many of the guns on the bluff were older 32-pdr smoothbores.
This example is a 32-pdr Model 1829 Seacoast Gun recovered from the river (which is an interesting story by itself). Those guns could range between 1800 and 1900 yards. While Belmont Landing was easily within range, the trees prevented clear shots at the advancing (and later retreating) Federals.
Without breaking out my gunner’s quadrant, I can offer up a “quick” lesson on battlefield ranges. The manual might indicate the gun can range several thousand yards, but all that matters little if the target is not in view. Firing on a vessel in the river is one thing. Firing at troops moving through heavy woods is another. A gunner can fire at an unseen target, he can’t very well aim at it! A rule of thumb for artillery fire is its effectiveness increases with the accuracy of the plotting (or in the American Civil War – aim).
Grant lost about 600 men (killed, wounded, and captured) out of 3,100 engaged at Belmont. Those numbers may have been higher but for some trees on the Missouri side of the river.