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Despite an accident and delay at Mound City he arrived at Paducah at half past eight on the morning of the sixth. The town was seized without firing a gun, the Confederate Brigadier Tilghman hurrying out with his forces while Grant was getting ashore. He left a garrison and returned to Cairo, where Fremont's answer to his dispatch awaited him. It gave him permission to take Paducah, “ if he felt strong enough.”
Brigadier-General C. F. Smith was given command of the place, and Grant was rebuked for corresponding with a State Legislature. This seizure was much criticised at the time, but Kentucky speedily passed resolutions favoring the Union, and neutrality became a myth. The generalship of Grant was not bad statesmanship. Military circles were not happy circles then. They seldom are. The genius that could grasp so boldly, act so promptly as to save an important strategic point, and at the same time so encourage the Unionists in a State Legislature as to embolden them to wipe out a fiction called neutrality, which was hardly less demoralizing than secession, was a little too startling to be readily tolerated, especially since it was found in one almost unknown. Grant would remain at Cairo.
This was also an important centre. It was a natural gathering point for operations on the lower Mississippi. Thither clustered the forces of the North in sublime confusion. Grant's command amounted almost to personal superintendence. There was not an officer of the regular army or trained soldier there. He had to teach regimental and company officers their simplest duties. His staff was of entirely green timber. It too had to be taught. And thus as adjutant-general, quartermaster, commissary, ordnance officer, and aid-de-camp, ordering, drilling, teaching, he passed from morn till night and night till morn. The force under his command grew to 20,000 men, very like an army.
Grant wanted to take Columbus on the Mississippi, twenty
miles below him. Fremont could not hear. That meant the fall of Belmont right opposite on the west bank. Still Fremont was deaf. Perhaps he was proving himself too good a drill master. His judgment of men brought around him an excellent staff. He was laying the foundations of an army whose force was to be felt in the West till the end of the war. After all the seeming discrimination against him had its compensation. He murmured not, but worked, and his work told, no matter into whose hands it afterwards fell.
On October 21st, a detachment of his forces under Col. Plummer met Jeff Thompson near Pilot Knob. After a two hours' fight the enemy retreated, leaving sixty killed on the field. This was the beginning of what became a general and very pretty movement. Fremont had ordered a force from Ironton to attack a strong Confederate position on St. Francis River. He ordered Grant to assist. Col. Oglesby was sent with three thousand mixed troops. This was Nov. Ist. On the 5th Fremont sent word to Grant that Polk, at Columbus, was reinforcing Price, who was then confronting Fremont, and that he should begin at once his proposed demonstration on Columbus. This was a grand chance. Grant requested Smith to move directly from Paducah
GENERAL PRICE. on to Columbus. He strengthened Oglesby with a regiment, and ordered him to swing to the south of Belmont. He at the same time started down the river with five regiments of infantry, one section of artillery, and two squadrons of cavalry, thirty-one hundred and fourteen men, in transports. Smaller detachments were also ordered from Bird's Point and Fort Holt.
On the evening of the 6th, hearing that Polk had been
crossing forces to Belmont all day, and fearing for Oglesby's safety, he decided to turn his attention to Belmont. So on the 7th he landed at Hunter's Point, three miles above Belmont and out of the range of the guns at Columbus. A line of battle was formed. General Pillow hurriedly crossed four Confederate regiments from Columbus, reinforced Col. Tappan, and took command. By nine o'clock the engagement was on. After four hours' fighting the Confederates were driven completely back across the lagoon, losing their camp, artillery, equipage and many prisoners.
Carried away by the first flush of victory, the Federals lost their heads. Pillow had reformed his lines at the river's bank, and Polk, overlooking the scene from Columbus, had sent him reinforcements. Grant, who had had a horse shot under him, strove to reform his men. He strove in vain. To stop the tumult and plundering he ordered all the camps to be burned. The smoke proved a target for the Confederate guns at Columbus, which opened fire with demoralizing effect. The Confederate reinforcements (Southern History of the War, pp. 206–8) increased their force to twelve regiments, nearly double the Federal force. To remain was destruction,
Pillow was making good use of his reinforcements and time. Anticipating Grant's desire to get back to his boats at Hunter's Point, he intercepted him. “We are surrounded!” was the cry. In such a case surrender seemed inevitable. We must cut our way out as we cut it in,” was the reply of the imperturbable Grant.
Hesitation ended. There was solemn work to do under a determined leader. The officers and troops fell to it earnestly. The enemy disappeared a second time over the banks. The transports were reached, and embarkation took place, under comparatively fair discipline. The Federal loss was killed, wounded and missing, 485. The Confederate loss was 632 according to their own history. The Federals carried off 175
Confederate prisoners and two guns, and spiked four others. General Grant's superintendence of the embarcation left him entirely behind his army. Anxious to see that all were safely in he lingered on a knoll, till within musket-range of a freshlyformed Confederate detachment, which was ordered to fire on him. But the transports were then the centre of attention, and so the General escaped, riding swiftly down to the last boat and boarding it just as it pushed off shore.
This first engagement of great magnitude in the Department was claimed as a substantial Federal victory. It is not always certain what makes a victory. The object was to protect Oglesby. It is certain that Polk sent no more reinforcements to harass him. He remained at Columbus, lest something worse than Belmont should happen. As to Grant, two things came about. He learned that nothing is to be gained by delay when two armies are fresh and undisciplined. His men learned that an expedition was not a holiday. The necessity for hard cohesion and stern discipline was so impressed on them that the soldiers of Belmont never failed to make their mark in subsequent struggles.
Notwithstanding Kentucky neutrality, the Confederates had formed a line from Columbus on the left to Bowling Green on the right, the former on the Mississippi, the latter at the junction of the Louisville and Nashville and Memphis and Ohio railroads. Strong armies were on both wings. In the centre, where the natural passage was by the rivers, and where the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were but twelve miles apart, were two strong forts, Fort Henry on the Tennessee, and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. These were well selected, well fortified. They compacted a line whose preservation meant the salvation of Memphis, Nashville and the entire country for hundreds of miles southward. Should these forts fall, Bowling Green and Columbus, the two flanks and extremes would be turned. They would fall also, and with
them the scene of battle would be shifted to other lines far beyond.
General Grant was looking upon this situation in early November, 1861, after the experience of Belmont. He saw these Confederate lines strengthen day by day. He knew the Confederacy was throwing into the forts, and the strong wings, its forces by the thousands, and was sending thither its best commanders. With a prescience which then seemed to be only his, he planned victory where it would tell with paralyzing effect on the enemy, and when it would electrify the country. For months there had been strain, exhaustion and gloom at home. What progress are we making? Where are our victories? When will it end? were the inquiries of the dissatisfied and despondent. Europe was nervous and peevish over the blockades. Loyalty was in the dumps. A cause seemed laggard or on the wane.