Who Won the Battle of Belmont?

Shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run, the Union and Confederacy clashed again in a second significant battle that introduced a new Union general: Ulysses S. Grant.

Apr 24, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

who won the battle of belmont


The First Battle of Bull Run revealed that the Confederacy was not going to surrender easily, setting the stage for a long war. Quickly, the Union began strategizing on how to wear down the South. One first step was to prevent border states from joining the Confederacy, limiting the South’s manpower and industry. All eyes turned to Kentucky, which had a pro-Confederate governor versus a pro-Union legislature.


Victory Goes to… Nobody?

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Drawings of the (self-proclaimed) Union victory at Belmont, Missouri during the battle. Source: Son of the South


The first major battle since the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run is typically described as inconclusive, with both sides claiming victory. The battle resulted from both the Union and the Confederacy trying to control the neutral border state of Kentucky, which was split between a pro-Confederate governor and a pro-Union state legislature. Paducah, Kentucky became a Union stronghold, while the Confederates controlled the town of Columbus. Upon hearing that Confederate forces in Kentucky would soon be used to reinforce their compatriots elsewhere, it was decided that Union troops under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant should try to keep the Confederates occupied.


Grant crossed the Mississippi River, aided by gunboats, and landed his troops at the small village of Belmont, Missouri. After a brief battle, Union troops captured a small Confederate camp and burned it. While Grant’s troops were returning to their transport boats, the Confederates counterattacked, leading to confusion about which side “won” the battle. Although the Union troops had captured and destroyed a small Confederate camp and been leaving in a pre-planned fashion, the Confederate counterattack drove them to a semi-panic. The South claimed it had driven back Union General Grant, while Grant claimed his operation had achieved all of its objectives.


Timeline of the Battle of Belmont

missouri civil war passport program
A map showing the Union and Confederate efforts to control the northern Mississippi River early in the US Civil War. Source: Fry’s Lyon Foundation


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Kentucky remained unoccupied by either military during the first few months of the US Civil War, but Confederate General Leonidas Polk decided to invade in early September of 1861 in order to pre-empt a possible Union invasion. The goal was to seize any valuable military or industrial assets in the state, which would be especially valuable to the less-industrialized South. The state was quickly split between a Union-controlled north and a Confederate-controlled south.


Skirmishes between the two militaries erupted in late October, with small Union victories. To reinforce their position in Columbus, Kentucky and make it more difficult to attack from the water, some Confederate troops occupied the village of Belmont and attempted to run a chain across the river.


Under orders from Major General John C. Fremont to keep the Confederate troops in the region occupied, Ulysses S. Grant had troops depart from Cairo, Illinois on boats to sail south and land at Belmont on November 6, 1861.


The next morning, the boats made the short journey to Hunter’s Farm, three miles outside of Belmont. After a quick march, Grant’s troops routed the small Confederate camp at Belmont.


Confederate general Leonidas Polk ordered a counterattack, and Grant retreated when he realized a large Confederate force was attacking.


Upon departing back to Cairo following the six-hour battle, Union gunboats managed to stop Confederate fire coming from the shore.


What Caused the Battle of Belmont?

border states 1861
A map showing Kentucky and Missouri, separated by the Mississippi River, as border states that had not joined the Confederacy in 1861. Source: National Geographic Society


Both the Union and the Confederacy eagerly courted the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. These were slave states that had a political and cultural mix of North and South. Although the states did not support anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, they also did not heed the call to secede from the union. Delaware was pro-Union, and Maryland was swiftly neutralized as a possible Confederate state by masses of Union troops moving through it to protect Washington DC. This left only Kentucky and Missouri up for strategic initiatives by both combatants.


Kentucky was a relatively developed border state with more slaveowners than some official Confederate states, making the state an attractive gain for the Confederacy. When neutrality was broken in early September, Confederate generals rushed to seize cities and build bases. Politically, Confederate General Leonidas Polk’s invasion of the state on September 3, 1861 backfired, outraging neutral Kentuckians and leading the state legislature to ask for Union assistance. The state of Kentucky became split between North and South, much like the United States itself, with Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the North and Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston in the South.


Why Was the Battle of Belmont Significant?

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Union gunboats on November 7, 1861 in a drawing of the Battle of Belmont. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command


The battle is not often remembered, especially since its result was inconclusive. However, it is important because it laid the foundation for Union military and political successes later in the war. First, the battle showed that the Union was still willing to go on the offensive even after the humiliating loss at the First Battle of Bull Run. At the time, many Union generals were considered too risk-averse, frustrating US President Abraham Lincoln. Grant’s performance at Belmont, despite its inconclusive end, caught the eye of the commander-in-chief, especially since Grant showed personal bravery by being the last Union soldier aboard the transport boats back to Illinois.


Secondly, the battle helped improve the confidence and leadership of Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become the general-in-chief of all Union armies in 1864. It was Grant’s first battle as a general officer, and he displayed his trademark aggression when Polk’s reinforcements temporarily surrounded the Union troops.


“We had cut our way in and could cut our way out,” Grant later said of the battle. Grant also accepted criticisms, showing he was not above trying to learn from his strategic errors. These qualities would hold him in good stead on his path to eventually becoming commander-in-chief himself in 1868.


5 Facts About the Battle of Belmont

ulysses s grant 1861 brig gen
A photograph of Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, who fought at Belmont in his first combat command during the Civil War. Source: National Park Service


1. Casualties

Casualties were roughly equal for both sides at approximately 600. These included just over 100 men killed, 100 men captured or missing, and 400 men wounded. Union forces suffered slightly more killed in action, while the Confederates had slightly more wounded. Although some in the North criticized Grant’s losses, which seemed heavy at the time, the North could easily replace the lost soldiers…while the South could not.


2.  Commanders

Union forces were led by Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, a relatively rookie general officer. The leader of volunteer forces was only 39 years old and had been working at his father’s leather store when the Battle of Fort Sumter occurred. However, Grant was also a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War. Despite not having wanted an army career after Mexico, Grant was appointed by the Illinois governor at the outset of the Civil War to train volunteers for service and quickly showed that he was a skilled leader.


Confederate forces at Belmont were led by General Leonidas K. Polk, a fellow West Point graduate. Unlike most generals of the Civil War, Polk was not a veteran of the Mexican-American War — he had left the military and become an Episcopal priest in 1841! Polk’s personal friendship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis won him a commission as a general, which was his first military activity since West Point graduation. The “Fighting Bishop,” who had been building a college in Tennessee when the Civil War began, was quickly criticized for lack of military acumen.


3. Number of Forces Involved

A map showing the location of the ground and naval Battle of Belmont in November 1861. Source: National Park Service


Ulysses S. Grant brought just over 3,000 Union troops to Belmont via boats from Cairo, Illinois on November 7, 1861. Although they quickly overwhelmed a small number of Confederate soldiers in the camp at Belmont, they soon faced Polk’s 5,000 Confederate reinforcements. These numbers would be dwarfed by those of later Civil War battles, which numbered in the tens of thousands of troops for each side.


4. Visiting Belmont, Missouri Today

Today, the battlefield can be seen as part of the Columbus-Belmont State Park in Columbus, Kentucky (across the Mississippi River from Missouri). Visitors to the state park can see Civil War artifacts, including chains that the Confederacy tried to use to prevent Union ships from sailing down the Mississippi River. A campground at the park is open year-round. Visitors can also learn about the historic Trail of Tears, which passes through the area, as part of Native American history.


5. Trivia: Grant’s First (and Almost Last) Civil War Command

The Battle of Belmont was Ulysses S. Grant’s first battle as a new general…and almost his last. During the battle, Polk had allegedly encouraged nearby Confederate troops to “try your marksmanship” on a Yankee soldier on horseback, which had been Grant in a common soldier’s overcoat. Nobody fired at Grant. Later, after riding aboard the departing steamship following the battle, Grant quickly rose from his sofa to observe the scene. A Confederate musket ball then ripped through the sofa where the young general had been only moments earlier!


Aftermath of Belmont: Slow Rise of Ulysses S. Grant

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Union general Ulysses S. Grant meeting with US President Abraham Lincoln. Source: Historic Petersburg Foundation


The inconclusive end to the battle was celebrated in the South as a victory, and some in the North even criticized Grant’s casualties. However, President Lincoln was eager for action and quickly came to favor Ulysses S. Grant. While the Civil War remained in a relative stalemate in the Eastern Theater between the Union capital of Washington DC and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, Grant began scoring strategic victories in the Western Theater. Only a few months after Belmont, he seized two Confederate forts in Tennessee.


Famously, Grant was defended by President Lincoln after his victory at Shiloh in April 1862. In response to criticisms of Grant’s high casualties, Lincoln responded: “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” The president praised Grant’s earnest and quiet, hardworking nature, which was unlike that of many of his fellow generals. Grant would remain in the Western Theater until early 1864 when he was made general-in-chief of all Union armies.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.