- 07 Nov 2019 13:18
November 7, Thursday
Hundreds of miles apart, two noteworthy military events take place. At one an important base is won for the Federals; at the other a Northern general receives a lesson in offensive action.
At 8 am Flag Officer Du Pont leads his powerful Federal naval squadron into Port Royal Sound, steaming in between Forts Beauregard and Walker and taking fire from both. His plan works perfectly. Tattnall brings the Confederate flotilla of four small vessels out to meet them and fires several broadsides, but facing fourteen men-of-war swiftly withdraws up Skull Creek. According to a Savannah newspaper, Tattnall dipped his pennant three times in salute to his old messmate, “regretting his inability to return the highflown compliments of Flag Officer Du Pont in a more satisfactory manner.” The five gunboats take up station off the mouth of the creek to make sure he stays there while the main force deals with the forts. Circling slowly, the fleet pounds the earthworks of Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and then of Fort Beauregard to the north. The Confederate defenders are outgunned and their return fire not very effective—the ships, moving on an elliptical course with constant changes in speed, range, and deflection, are extremely hard to hit. As well, the defenders haven’t wasted their scant powder on anything as unprofitable as target practice, and now find that many of the shells won’t fit, the powder is inferior, and the crews become exhausted within an hour of opening fire—unwilling to trade sweat for blood, they ended up paying in both. Not that it matters, as Fort Walker has been designed to be defended only from an assault straight in from the sea. The Confederates lost as soon as Du Pont came up with his plan. By 2:20 Fort Walker has been abandoned and the Union flag raised above the ramparts while Fort Beauregard lowers its flag by nightfall, the forces in both withdrawing inland to form a new line of defense. Casualties are light with 11 Confederates killed, 48 wounded, 3 captured, and 4 missing. For the Federals, there are 8 killed, 6 seriously wounded, and 17 slightly wounded. No major damage is done to the Federal vessels, and soon Thomas W. Sherman’s 12,000 men begin their occupation of the Hilton Head-Port Royal area.
The battle has not been without its romantic aspect, for one of the defenders was Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton, whose brother, Captain Percival Drayton, commanded one of the attacking frigates; the land for which they fought had been their childhood home. As well, some standard theories are going to have to be revised: the belief that one gun on land is equal to four on the water has been invalidated by steam, removing the restrictions of wind and current and allowing such maneuvers as Du Pont’s ellipse. Naval power is going to be a dominant factor in this war.
The Union now has a toehold in Confederate territory, between Savannah and Charleston. Although they do not exploit it sufficiently on land, it will remain a threat throughout the war and, most importantly, furnishes a base for the coaling and supplying of blockaders. Port Royal represents a valuable enclave carved in Confederate soil and its menace can never be forgotten by Confederate commanders. Later it will also become a center for Negro refugees, and with control of some of the finest old plantations in the South will become a center of uplift experiments among Black field hands by abolitionists.
Early the same morning far to the west, General Grant’s naval flotilla with 3,114 troops down the Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois. Landing on the Missouri shore three miles north of the hamlet of Belmont, Grant’s troops form up and march south while the gunboats continue downstream to engage the batteries on the Columbus bluff across the river. The infantry soon comes under heavy musket fire, from more than one half-sick regiment—Polk, having learned of the attack, has reinforced the Belmont garrison with four regiments. It is hard, stand-up fighting, five regiments on each side, each side supported by a battery of light infantry. The Confederates give ground stubbornly then eventually break. Running through the camp and taking cover on a narrow mud flat protected by a steep low bank, they call out to reinforcements arriving by boat to go back, that they’re whipped. They’re wrong—Grant’s men, having overrun the camp and also thinking they’ve won, have stopped to loot while officers gallop about from group to group delivering short eulogies. But with the Confederates out of the way, the batteries up on the Columbus bluff rake the camp while the fresh reinforcements line up to advance. Disgusted, Grant orders the camp burned to discourage the looters and does what he can to reassemble his command, only to learn that additional reinforcements have landed between him and his transports. When an aide exclaims that they are surrounded, Grant says, “Well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in.” He is fortunate, though, in that his faulty intelligence has made his own plans impenetrable—Polk, refusing to believe that the action at Belmont is anything but a feint to distract him from the real attack, refuses to send more reinforcements until it is too late. In the end, Grant’s regiments succeed in “cutting their way out,” though at the price of abandoning most of their captured material, including four guns, many of the non-walking wounded, and one thousand rifles that the Confederates collected from the field afterward. Grant hadn’t kept back a reserve to throw into the battle at critical moments but performs more or less as a reserve himself, riding from point to point along his line to direct and encourage his troops in spite of having one horse shot from under him. Except for one regiment, which is cut off from the fighting and marches upstream to be picked up later, Grant is the last man aboard the final transport and almost left behind—the skipper had already pushed off, but looking back recognizes Grant on horseback and runs out a plank for him to ride across onto the boat.
And so ends the Battle of Belmont. The “battle” is really a large raid or reconnaissance. Federal losses are put at 120 killed, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing for 607 out of some 3,000. Confederate losses are 105 killed, 419 wounded, and 117 missing for 641 out of about 5,000 men put across the river. Aside from the casualties nothing of strategic value to either side is gained. This is recognized in the press, and the talk of “Grant the butcher” begins. As well, the battle followed in general the pattern of most of the battles fought this year—the attackers gain initial success, the defenders giving way to early panic, until suddenly the roles are reversed and the rebels are left in control of the field, crowing over Yankee cowardice But there is the intangible result of a Union commander getting experience in war in the field without being placed in a major battle before he is ready. And on the battlefield Grant had kept his head when everyone around him were losing theirs, was always where bullets flew the thickest, was the last man to leave the battle—and his men saw it all and love him for it. They aren’t having any of the “butcher” talk. And best of all, they have gained experience themselves and seen Confederates break and run.
In Missouri Major General Hunter repudiates the agreement of Fremont and Price in regard to political prisoners.
The expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat, because the aristocrat is only the man who lives well, while the expert is the man who knows better.
—G. K. Chesterton