The Bluffs at Columbus, Kentucky

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Katy Berman

The Columbus-Belmont State Park, located in western Kentucky, commemorates the Battle of Belmont, which was fought in Missouri. The great guns of Columbus were used to advantage during the fight, but Union and Confederate troops bloodied and alternately routed each other on Missouri’s shores. Today, Columbus contains more historical interest, due to a remarkable system of earthworks that stretch well-inland from the banks of the Mississippi. The once steep banks have eroded to gentle hills, but visitors can still marvel at the enormous, interconnected grassy mounds, masterpieces of engineering and backbreaking labor, and wonder at their ultimate futility.

Belmont Bluffs

Several artifacts bear additional witness to the dashed Confederate hopes for Columbus. A 32-pound gun that was abandoned during the Confederate evacuation of March, 1862 has been polished and reassembled. Nearby is an anchor and section of an enormous chain that once stretched across the river as part of the Confederate defenses. The heavy chain was severed by the strong currents of the Mississippi River, then further dismantled by Federal troops when they occupied the city. Anchor and chain sank into the soft mud; subsequently, a landslide toppled the cannon into the river. All were salvaged in the next century thanks to erosion, luck, and human ingenuity. Finally, an excellent, small museum is housed in a home that is believed to have served as a hospital after the battle. There the story of what happened and why on November 7, 1861 is well told.[1]

As soon as the first shots of the Civil War were fired, North and South began to view the river town of Columbus as a prize worth taking. The army that controlled the bluffs, it was opined, controlled the upper Mississippi River. Almost as enticingly, Columbus was the northern terminus of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Both sides understood, however, that invading Kentucky would mean violating that state’s neutrality, a status both Washington and Richmond had vowed to honor.

Columbus was too tempting. By August, 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk began to move 16,000 Confederate troops out of Tennessee and toward Columbus. Union Major General John C. Fremont, commander of the Western Department, ordered Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to get there first. On September 3, Confederates occupied the bluffs, but Grant was quick to retaliate. Three days later, he captured the Kentucky town of Paducah. Located at the junction of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, Paducah would prove the greater prize.[2]

Belmont Battlefield. Lithograph by Thomas Hunter, Philadelphia. From The History of the Civil War in America by the Comte de Paris, 1876.

Polk established a camp at Belmont, and moved swiftly to fortify the steep Kentucky banks. While soldiers dug trenches, felled trees for barricades, and built forts, gunboats patrolled the river. A huge chain was anchored in Kentucky and floated on rafts to the Missouri shore. Torpedoes were sunk and other obstructions contrived. One hundred-forty guns were positioned amidst the Columbus fortifications to rain deadly fire on enemy vessels. The combined earthworks, forts, and batteries were christened Fort DeRussey; the Belmont encampment became Camp Johnston.[3]

Camp Johnston was the gateway through which Polk sent reinforcements to General Sterling Price in Missouri. He also aided and abetted the “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy,” Meriwether Jeff Thompson, who harassed Federals in the southeast corner of the state. Missouri was a headache for General Fremont, and in November he devised another mission for Grant. While forces would pursue Price and Thompson in Missouri, Grant would stage a diversion at Columbus to keep Polk from sending in reinforcements.[4]

All that autumn, Columbus residents felt safe and secure in their fortifications. Kate Beall, ten years old at the time, later recalled, “The town was very gay; dances, boat rides, and dinners with friends in camp which were like picnics, were frequent.” School was cancelled, and children delighted in their freedom. They cheered soldiers on dress parade, and played hide and seek among the forts and stacks of cannonballs.[5]

Citizens were aware of, but largely untroubled by, the Union presence at Cairo, Illinois, eleven miles upriver. They watched from the cliffs whenever Union gunboats approached the river bend and fired off a few shots.  Confederate artillerists sometimes fired back with a similar lack of aggression. “It was more in the way of a salute or artillery practice,” was Kate’s remembrance.[6]

On November 7, however, there was something unusual in the gunboats’ behavior. Unexpectedly, they rounded the bend for the first time and came into full view, firing upon the bluffs with new determination. They weaved and dodged until Confederate artillery found their range, and then retreated.[7]

Pickets had seen Union transports ferrying men from Kentucky to Missouri, several miles above Belmont, early that morning. Confederate patrols had spotted Union columns marching toward Columbus, but they were still far away. When shots were heard across the river, Polk was at a loss to understand what Grant was about. Columbus was assuredly worth taking, but Belmont? It was the site of a small encampment that could easily be blown to bits by Columbus artillery.[8]

Grant, exceeding orders, had decided his green troops would attack Camp Johnston. They did so zealously, but chaotically. As they charged the Confederates’ main defensive line, regiments dissolved into a surging mass of men. A portion of the 27th Illinois Infantry was separated from its commander and lost its way. They were rescued under cover of darkness, well after the battle concluded.[9]

The Confederates fought back hard, but slowly retreated. At Camp Johnston, it became a rout as Federals chased the enemy out of camp and onto a sandbar below. Believing they had won the battle, Union troops stopped and celebrated. Officers orated and men pillaged, ignoring rebel troops huddling at the water’s edge. Grant, seeking to restore discipline, ordered the camp torched.[10]

Seeing that his troops were out of danger, Polk unleashed his artillery. He sent over two regiments which landed between the camp and Union transports. Before the camp was in ashes, Confederates at the water’s edge rallied and reemerged. It was the Federals’ turn to be routed.[11]

Union troops fled to the safety of their transports, but the Confederates were everywhere. Panic struck, and at least one officer insisted that the army was surrounded and must surrender. Grant, showing his mettle, replied, “we had cut our way in, and could cut our way out just as well.” [12]

Grant’s men boarded the transports under a barrage of Confederate fire, nearly leaving their general behind. Unsurprisingly, Grant tells the story best: “The captain of a boat that had just pushed out, recognized me and ordered the engineer not to start the engine; he then had a plank run out for me.”[13] After maneuvering his second steed of the battle down a steep incline (his first had been shot from under him), Grant was the last to board.

A path through the earthworks at Fort DeRussey (Authors Photo)

Grant was satisfied with the operation, but it was widely perceived as a bungled affair. A junior officer, Colonel William H.L. Wallace commented, “The advantages were all against the attempt, and any permanent or substantial good an impossibility under the circumstances.” The men had performed well, “but it cost too much.”[14]

Polk claimed victory (as did Grant), but Columbus was never the same. A contingent of Union troops had crept close enough to the rear of Fort on November 7 to skirmish with Confederates. They had been driven off, but the reality of war had come home. Fear of another Union attack led Polk to order the evacuation of women and children. Kate Beall left, with aunts and cousins, for Tennessee; her mother and grandparents were permitted to remain behind and tend to the wounded.[15]

In early February, 1862, Columbus, whose defenses remained formidable, was circumvented. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote captured the hastily constructed Forts Henry and Donelson, and hence controlled the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. As these ran parallel to the Mississippi through Kentucky and into Tennessee,   became isolated and no longer supported Confederate war aims.

General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who had come west from Manassas, determined Columbus needed to be evacuated. It was inevitable that the town would be taken, and the South could not afford another costly surrender, like the one that occurred at Fort Donelson. Polk’s 17,000 troops would be more valuable elsewhere. Polk begged to remain, even with a heavily reduced force. He had not ceased from fortifying the bluffs, and believed he could withstand an assault or siege. Beauregard said no.[16]

Looking towards Belmont from Columbus (Authors Photo)

On March 3, Federal troops marched into Columbus and found it deserted; Polk had executed a flawless evacuation of men and materiel. Union soldiers found only the litter of a large encampment, a few disabled cannons, and the massive entrenchments. The earthworks had failed in their great promise to safeguard the upper Mississippi for the South.

————

Katy  Berman is a retired elementary-school teacher residing in New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English at the University of California, Berkeley and her Master’s in American History through American Military University. For several years, she has reviewed books for “The Civil War Courier.” Last summer, Katy drove across country, visiting Civil War sites along the way. The beautiful Columbus-Belmont State Park was among them.

[1]      Ross, Jack R. “A Brief Military History of Columbus, Kentucky,” The Ross War Blog Spot, February 22, 2009. Accessed September 10, 2020, https://rosswar.blogspot.com/.

[2]      Hurst, Jack. Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign that Decided the Civil War.  (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 39-41.

[3]      Columbus-Belmont Historic Pocket Brochure Text (Kentucky Parks). Accessed September 10, 2020, https://parks.ky.gov/sites/default/files/listing_documents/bd5d0c09888351da895977a12981568a_Col-Belmontpcktbrochure.pdf

[4]      Tucker, Spencer, “Belmont, Battle of,” The Civil War Naval Encyclopedia, [Volume 1], Santa Barbara, Calif. accessed September 10, 2020, https://apus.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/discovery/fulldisplay?docid=cdi_gale_vrl_1761400049&context=PC&vid=01APUS_INST:Alumni&lang=en&search_

[5]      Bell, Anne Ryan, Kate Walker Beall- A Child’s Story of a Battle (Anne Ryan Beall, 2019), 22-23.

[6]      Ibid., 21.

[7]      Ibid.,24-25.

[8]      Wingo, W.T. Jr. “The Battle of Belmont in the Civil War,” The Marine Corps Gazette,23, no.2 (June,1939), 19. Accessed September 10, 2020, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/206277963?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[9]      Hurst, Men of Fire,43.

[10]      Ibid., 47.

[11]      Wingo, “Battle of Belmont in the Civil War,” 19.

[12]      McPherson, James. Battle Cry of the Republic: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988),396.

[13]      Columbus-Belmont State Park Historic Pocket Brochure Text.

[14]      Wallace, Isabel. The Life and Letters of General W.H.L. Wallace. Southern Illinois Press, 2000, First Edition, R.R. Donnelly and Sons Company, 1909, 141. Accessed September 10, 2020 https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/reader.action?docID=1354500

[15]      Bell, Kate Walker Beall,33.

[16] Shelby Foote. The Civil War: A Narrative. Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Random House, 1986), 149-152, 192,305-306.

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3 Responses to The Bluffs at Columbus, Kentucky

  1. Ed Flanagan says:

    It’s a shame that Belmont Battlefield is not readily accessible or protected. While the Battle of Belmont was a small, but shockingly bloody battle with 225 killed and over a thousand wounded. The Battle of Belmont was important because it disrupted Confederate operations in the West and came at a time when Northern moral was still trying to recover from the debacles at Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek.

    Besides Ulysses Grant’s first battle as a general with future several generals participated: John McClernand, John Logan, Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, Leonidas Polk, A. P. Stewart, Frank Cheatham, Gideon Johnson Pillow and a future admiral, Henry Walke.

  2. john stevens says:

    “…soldiers dug trenches, felled trees for barricades, and built forts, gunboats patrolled the river. A huge chain was anchored in Kentucky and floated on rafts to the Missouri shore. Torpedoes were sunk and other obstructions contrived. One hundred-forty guns were positioned amidst the Columbus fortifications ”

    I’m always fascinated by how technology evolved during the war and am happy to find pieces still intact. A chain across the Mississippi to keep boats out, earthworks on the high ground, an anchor are great pieces to tell a richer story of the times. At times is seems the ubiquitous cannon is the symbol of the war. It’s nice to see other examples of human ingenuity.

    But, like almost every encounter the real story of the day is the same.

    “…had decided his green troops would attack …. They did so zealously, but chaotically. As they charged the … line, regiments dissolved into a surging mass of men.”

    Thanks for the description of this site

  3. Chris Kolakowski says:

    It is a great and underappreciated site. Columbus itself is largely forgotten today, ad the 1927 flood effectively killed the town.

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