The area where Columbus-Belmont State Park is today was once a fort for the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The area was strategically located on a large bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Standing on the bluff, one can look up the Mississippi River for oncoming Union forces for miles. And considering how slow movement was along the river, it would be easy for the Confederate forces to fire upon the Union armies.
Fort DeRussey - the "Gibraltar of the West"
Confederate General Leonidas Polk created the fort on the bluff around September 3, 1861. Officially the name was Fort DeRussey, but Polk referred to the site as the “Gibraltar of the West”. It was one of the most strategically significant sites in this part of the country due to its ability to control traffic on the Mississippi River. The fort would also help protect important cities down river such as Memphis and Vicksburg, Miss. It also was the northern terminus of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, which was an important supply line for the Confederacy.
The Chain & Anchor
One of General Polk’s unique ideas was to stretch a one-mile iron chain across the Mississippi River to keep Union forces from heading downstream. Today it would seem like a logistical nightmare to pull off, but considering this was 150 years ago makes the feat all the more impressive. Polk had hoped the chain would stop the Union boats long enough for the Confederates to bombard them with cannons.
The chain was suspended in the river on a pontoon bridge, made up of several flat-bottomed boats. By removing certain boats, the chain was raised or lowered. However, the system was flawed and soon the chain broke. At one point, too many boats were removed and weight of the chain plus the current of the river was too much for it to handle.
The chain had an anchor on one end that weighed anywhere from two to six tons. The chain’s links were 11 inches long and weighed just over 20 pounds each. When the chain was exposed during a landslide in December 1925, officials dug around the chain until the anchor was revealed. It had been buried in 11 feet of earth with its 9 foot flukes fixed vertically to 12-foot oak logs. It had been there for 64 years.
The chain was preserved by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934 by building a stone monument to hold the chain.
In addition to the chain, Fort DeRussey was home to 17,000 confederate troops and several dozen cannons and land mines. After the Battle of Belmont, Columbus was home to several wooden gunboats from the Confederate Navy.
The First Shots
Interestingly, most of the battle action wasn’t seen inside the fortified town of Columbus, Kentucky or Fort DeRussey, which sat above the town on the Iron Banks Bluff. Arguably the most recognized name in Civil War history – Ulysses S. Grant – fought his first Civil War battle across the river at the tiny hamlet of Belmont, Missouri, the site of a day-long battle that eventually would allow Union forces to occupy Fort DeRussey and Columbus.
Map on a sign at Columbus Belmont State Park showing the different areas and routes taken by troops during the Battle of Belmont. Click for a larger image.
Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant organized a force of 3,114 men in Cairo, Illinois for a battle at Columbus and Fort DeRussey to prevent Confederate forces from advancing into Missouri. During the evening of November 6, 1861, six steamers supported by the gunboats USS Lexington and USS Tyler carried Grant’s army southward toward Columbus.
Belmont & Camp Johnson
During the short journey from Cairo to Columbus, Grant decided to attack the smaller confederate Camp Johnson at Belmont, Missouri. The fortified camp was significantly weaker than Fort DeRussey and Grant was looking to give his inexperienced troops some battle time.
His troops landed north of Belmont on the Missouri shore at 7:00 a.m., November 7th. His troops began to head south toward Belmont. Confederate General Gideon Pillow sent reinforcements and 3,000 Confederate troops were set to battle Grant’s Union forces. The advantage was to the Union due to them being covered by thick forests. The Confederates’ defense lines were in an open field.
During the late morning hours the Union troops began to march through the thick trees until they reached the edge. From there they attacked the vulnerable Confederate lines. Gunfire exchanged for a while but the Confederates were at a disadvantage due to their enemies’ defense of tree cover.
Map from the Columbus-Belmont State Park showing the area at the time of the Civil War. Click for larger image.
By 11:00 a.m. the Confederates were running low on ammunition. Confederate General Gideon Pillow ordered a bayonet charge for the entire line, which reportedly confused the North and drove them deeper into the forest. Shortly, the Federal soldiers regrouped and began firing heavily on the southern soldiers and soon both sides were back at their original line of scrimmage.
The Confederates eventually ran out of ammo, and when new bullets were the wrong type, the troops began to retreat. The 12th Tennessee and 13th Arkansas along with other units fled to an area of abates surrounding Camp Johnson at Belmont.
Over the next two hours or so, the Union troops surrounded Camp Johnson on the west and south sides. Artillery fire from across the river at Columbus attempted to stop the North’s advance on Camp Johnson. But they responded with artillery fire into the camp and soon the North seized Camp Johnson with Confederate soldiers retreating upriver away from battle. Union forces gave chase and the South suffered even more casualties. Things were not looking well for the Confederacy.
The Federal troops returned to Camp Johnson and began to celebrate their victory. Some were looting the camp to get whatever they could while a few others burned the camp at Grant’s orders. Unfortunately, a few sick or severely wounded Confederate troops were unnoticed and they perished inside their tents as they burned.
Confederate reinforcements from steamers arrived just north of Camp Johnson. Units lead by Brigadier General Frank Cheatham organized troops from the 11th Louisiana, the 15th Tennessee, the 13th Arkansas and the 2nd, 13th, 21st, and 22nd Tennessee units. Together, with fresh ammunition, they marched south toward Belmont and Camp Johnson.
By 2:00 p.m. Grant saw the arrival of Confederate
reinforcements. He organized them into a column and began
to march toward their own transports. However, the column
was broken with men running out in all directions.
Cheatham’s troops attached the rear of the North’s column where the 7th Iowa and 22nd Illinois were located.
With exchanges of gunfire, the North lost ground fast and soon the South surrounded the 7th Iowa. Federal forces at the front of the column were met with resistances from the 11th Louisiana and the 15th Tennessee. The 31st Illinois were able to break through the South’s line followed by the rest of the column and they quickly boarded their transports.
By 5:30 that afternoon, more Southern reinforcements arrived and began firing on the transports. Once the Federal transports were running upriver, they fired upon the Confederates on the banks. They eventually cleared the area and went back to Cairo.
The North and South both claimed victory at the Battle of Belmont, even though going by the numbers it was not a clear victory for either side. Grant suffered 95 casualties with 205 missing or captured. 306 of his units were injured. The South suffered 105 casualties with 419 wounded. 117 were captured or missing.
The battle itself didn’t have an immediate impact on the Civil War, but it was important for several reasons. It was Ulysses S. Grant’s first battle. It initiated the opening of the Federal campaign to win the strategic Mississippi River. And Grant’s troops gained much-needed battle experience for future skirmishes.
In February of 1862, Grant headed down the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and defeated the weaker Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. This left Columbus unprotected and vulnerable to Federal attack. On March 2, General Polk and his staff abandoned Columbus after destroying buildings and supplies. The next day, Federal forces seized Fort DeRussey and Columbus and stayed there until the end of the war.
The fort at Columbus, Fort DeRussey, was heavily fortified which caused General Grant to attack neighboring Belmont, Missouri, located just across the river. Due to the strength of the fort, the North didn't directly attack it. The Union soldiers, led by Grant, attacked the weaker Camp Johnson at Belmont instead. Grant said his troops were inexperienced and needed a fight, so he picked the less fortified Belmont.