The Battle of Belmont: Mistakes Rule the Day

General Leonidas Polk

General Leonidas Polk. From the Library of Congress.

The inexperience that was prevalent in the morning skirmish at Belmont would set the tone for the rest of the Battle. In their first encounters with the enemy, Generals on both sides would continue to show their lack of military training. While Union General McClernard seized the poorly placed cannons of Confederate Gen. Pillow, he allowed his men to celebrate the victory with heavy drinking. Meanwhile head Confederate commander Gen. Polk is still concerned with the Union advancement of General Smith towards Columbus. Unable to part with his best men, General Polk called on the Reserve Brigade to assist the fighting near Camp Johnston.

Called from the rear the Southern Illinois Company of the 15th Tennessee is ordered onto the battlefield to combat their Illinois brethren in Logan’s 31st Illinois. Seeing a cannon regiment clad in blue, Polk ordered the 15th Tennessee and 11th Louisiana to seize back the Confederate guns. The 15th Tennessee boarded a ferry named the Charm and opened fire on the cannons across the river. However, what the 15th Tennessee did not know, was that their first shots of the war were fired at their own men. General Polk had mistaken the blue uniforms of his own canon regiment for a Union force. Confederate Artillery under Colonel Watson thought they are being shot at by Union boats and returned fire, almost sinking the 15th Tennessee’s vessel. (Gleeson p.25-40)

Civil War Ferry

A Civil War era ferry. From the Library of Congress.

Reaching the shoreline and under artillery fire from their own troops, the Southern Illinois Company moved into the cover of the woods and prepared to launch a joint attack with the 11th Louisiana on the Union infantry. However, while moving through the woods the 11th Louisiana became separated from the 15th Tennessee and the Reserve Brigade was broken up. At 1:15 pm in an odd series of events, the Southern Illinois Company stumbled out of the woods and squared off against the Union infantry. At a closer look the men realized that it was none other than their own John A. Logan standing with his 31st Illinois across the battlefield. The two regiments exchanged fire, until out of the woods, and somehow at the flank of Logan’s 31st, appeared the 11th Louisiana at a full charge.

Battle at Belmont, Missouri

Battle of Belmont.

Combined with the strength of the 15th Tennessee the Confederate forces move the 31st Illinois men off Camp Johnston. Eventually both sides retreated back to the positions they had occupied before the fighting began. Strategically neither side gained any ground from the fighting. The Union declared it a victory since Grant engaged 2,500 men had 95 killed and 306 wounded; compared to Polk’s 5,200 engaged, 106 killed, and 419 wounded. The Confederate’s saw their fighting as a victory because they still held their position at Columbus. For the two Williamson County regiments involved the losses were roughly the same. Company G of the 15th Tennessee had lost 4 men to the fighting, 3 from injury, 1 from desertion. For the 31st, as an entire regiment, 10 men were killed and 70 were injured. (Morris p.xix)