Wednesday, November 7, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Thursday, Nov. 7, 1861

By November 1, Grant had 20,000 men in his command, well trained, ready to meet the enemy, and hungry for action. So was Grant. “What I want is to advance,” he wrote. Today, he will get his chance. A few days earlier, General Frémont had asked him to block Confederate forces from crossing the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky, while Frémont conducted a major operation against Gen. M. Jeff Thompson in southeast Missouri. In other words, Grant is to play second fiddle, merely creating “a demonstration,” while Frémont takes center stage by invading Grant’s own territory.

Escorted by two gunboats, Grant had set out by steamer yesterday with four regiments of Illinois troops and one of Iowans, plus some cannon and cavalry. This morning, however, he receives welcome news: the Confederates at Columbus, Kentucky, had sent a force across the river to Belmont, Missouri. In Grant’s mind, that creates a reason for him to engage in battle instead of a mere “demonstration.” Grant may be exceeding his orders in doing so, but Frémont has just been relieved of command—so Grant happily steers for Belmont the Missouri side of the river, instead of Columbus on the Kentucky side.

By mid-morning, Grant’s forces are attacking the Confederates at Belmont, the inexperienced soldiers pressing ahead in what turns into an uncontrolled firefight. As the bullets whiz by, Grant remains bravely mounted on his horse, riding behind the firing line and encouraging his men. But when the Confederates flee in disarray, Grant loses what control he had as his Union soldiers fall to looting the abandoned Confederate campsites.

Then Confederate reinforcements from Columbus cross the river and launch an attack on the startled Yankees, some of whom panic. Grant remains calm, however, directing the return of the soldiers to their transport. He finds himself alone in front of the Confederates and only able to narrowly escape back to his steamboat. Grant’s horse leaps on the boat as it pulls away from shore. The Confederates pepper Grant’s steamboat before it chugs out of range and makes its way back to Cairo.

Grant’s 3,114 men had encountered about 5,000 Confederates. The outcome is best described as a draw. Though the battle later will be called pointless, it was a valuable learning experience for Grant. Personally, he performed well in combat, remaining calm in the face of danger, but learned he would need to exercise more control in the future.

And, unlike George B. McClellan in the east, Grant is demonstrating an eagerness to take the fight to the enemy. It is a sign of things to come.

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