On September 4, 1861, the 29th Illinois boarded the Illinois Central Railroad and headed to their first post – Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was a strategic location at the convergence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The U.S. government had created a military camp and naval base at Cairo. The pre-war population of Cairo increased by 600% in 1861 with the arrival of thousands of Union soldiers. Just south of the small town, there was a very large parade ground with camps and barracks all around. Cairo is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, with a 15 foot levee encircling most of the town. During high rains, the valley created by the levee would effectively become a very large mud pit, making for very uncomfortable living conditions. On the easternmost side of Cairo, parallel to the Ohio River, was Ohio Street. General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union troops in Southeast Missouri established his headquarters on Ohio Street on September 4, 1861.
On September 3, Confederate General Leonidas Polk violated the declared neutrality of Kentucky by moving troops and artillery to Columbus, Kentucky, a small town with bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, opposite Belmont, Missouri. General Grant responded in kind by moving troops to Paducah, Kentucky, a city located at the convergence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. In addition to Polk’s battery at Columbus, Grant was concerned with the actions of Brigadier General Jeff M. Thompson and his band of Confederate soldiers in Southeast Missouri. From October 22 – October 24, the 29th Regiment was part of an expedition to Bloomfield, Missouri in pursuit of Thompson’s forces. The expedition did not yield any results. On November 2, the 29th was assigned to Col. Richard Oglesby’s brigade of about 3,000 men. Oglesby’s brigade set off for Bloomfield again on November 2 in pursuit of Thompson. Oglesby’s brigade met Thompson’s skirmish line. Thompson’s forces retreated in the direction of New Madrid, Missouri on the Mississippi River on November 6 and Oglesby’s brigade gave chase.
At this time, General Grant learned that Polk was planning on sending troops from Columbus, Kentucky across the Mississippi River to cut off Col. Oglesby’s brigade. Grant, who had been itching to attack Polk at Columbus, but whose proposed assaults had been vetoed by military command, acted fast to engage Polk prior to Polk’s engagement with Oglesby. Grant sent correspondence to Oglesby ordering him to move his troops toward Belmont, Missouri. Meanwhile, Grant led a force of about 3,000 men, along with the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington down the Mississippi towards Columbus. Grant and his troops disembarked from their transports on the west bank, several miles upriver from Columbus and out of the range of the artillery sitting atop the bluffs at Columbus. The Tyler and the Lexington initially stayed to guard the transport boats. Grant’s soldiers
moved overland and attached the Confederate camp at Belmont, Missouri, pushing the rebels back to the river. After this initial victory, the Union soldiers lost all sense of discipline and began pillaging the camp and engaging in a premature celebration. To regain control of his men, Grant ordered the camp torched. In the confusion, some Confederate soldiers may have been burned alive.
At this point, the artillery from Columbus came to life and began shelling Belmont. Additionally, Polk sent transport ships loaded with reinforcements, commanded by Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, across the river. The celebration of the Union soldiers turned to panic, but they were encouraged by their officers and reformed a line of battle. The Tyler and Lexington left their positions and headed down river to engage the artillery, and to draw their fire away from the infantry. The gunboats also fired volleys against the attacking rebels, to provide covering fire to allow Grant’s infantry to retreat. Aboard the transport ships, Grant returned to Cairo. Col. Oglesby’s brigade did not reach Belmont prior to the federal retreat, and the brigade marched north back to Cairo. The Battle of Belmont did not result in any strategic or tactical gains for the Union or Confederacy.
Reported casualties were: Union 607 (120 dead, 383 wounded, 104 captured/missing) and Confederate 641 (105 killed, 419 wounded, 117 captured/missing). General Grant was chastised in the press for his conduct in the battle, however, President Lincoln admired Grant’s aggressive nature and desire to fight, something that was lacking in the generals in the east. In his memoirs written over 20 years later, Grant took the opportunity to justify his actions by stating that the Battle of Belmont was necessary to allow Oglesby’s forces to escape. Historians argue, however, that Grant used this as a pretext to attack Polk’s forces at Columbus, an action he had previously been forbidden from undertaking. At any rate, Oglesby’ men were not attacked and lived to fight another day, and a large contingency of Grant’s command was able to experience combat prior to the invasion of the south that would begin a few months later.