A Dutchman at Belmont

The Battle of Belmont, Missouri is perhaps best remembered as being General Ulysses S. Grant’s first battle in the Civil War, a battle devoid of strategic intention, an engagement which stemmed from Grant’s desire “to do something” against the growing Confederate presence in Columbus, Kentucky. “I did not see how I could maintain discipline or retain the confidence of my command if we should return to Cairo without an effort to do something,” he recalled in his Memoirs. Gathering a force totaling a little over 3,000 men and escorted by a pair of gunboats, Grant set out from Cairo aboard steamboats intending to give the Rebs a sharp rap on the nose.

The general had received intelligence that indicated that the Confederates had crossed a small force over the Mississippi from Columbus to Belmont, Missouri. Grant’s idea was to swoop down on this Confederate detachment, rough it up, tear up its camps, then high tail it back to the steamboats before the larger Confederate force at Columbus had time to react. Things didn’t work out according to plan, and the Confederates, after initially being driven out of their camps, ended up driving Grant’s force back to the boats with a loss of nearly 500 Federals. But Grant’s men gave a good account of themselves, inflicting 642 casualties. The battle was ultimately indecisive and all things considered, a Confederate victory. But it showed that Grant was a commander who would fight.

For Otho Klemm, Belmont marked his first battle in the Civil War, too. The German-born Klemm moved from Toledo, Ohio to Chicago, Illinois just before the war and joined Battery B of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery on July 25, 1861. He served a three-year term of enlistment with the battery, mustering out July 23, 1864. This battery was known by a number of names but at this time was called Taylor’s Battery as it was led by Captain Ezra Taylor. Taylor’s Battery served in the Army of the Tennessee throughout the war, seeing action at Belmont, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and numerous others engagements throughout the western theater. At Belmont, the battery was attached to Brigadier General John McClernand’s First Brigade which consisted of the 27th Illinois, 30th Illinois, 31st Illinois, two companies of Illinois cavalry, and Taylor’s battery.

Klemm’s account appeared in the November 30, 1861 issue of the Daily Toledo Herald & Times on page two.

Battle of Belmont, Missouri, November 7, 1861

Bird’s Point, Mo., Nov. 10, 1861
My Dear Theo,      
Your kind favor of the 4th, I just received with pleasure, the day we left this point for the never to be forgotten battle of Belmont.  This is the first opportunity I have had to relieve your anxiety in regard to our safety. It is quite difficult for me to fix my mind on anything for the present than that eventful day November 7, 1861.  I will give you my description of the bloodiest battle that has ever been fought in Missouri!

On the evening of the 6th we embarked with our whole battery, consisting of six pieces on the steamer Chancellor, there were three other boats, which had about 3,500 Infantry from here and Cairo.  We all left under great cheering and all of us aching for a fight.  We had it and “more too.”

We disembarked the next morning at 7 o’clock on the Missouri side near Belmont, under the fire of the enemy’s heavy guns from the fortifications of Columbus across the river and a masked battery at the same place, which was very well answered by our two gunboats.  About 9 o’clock all the troops were in sight of the Rebels, and then commenced one of the bloodiest battles I ever heard of. The Rebels had about 500 men and two batteries of artillery, one being the celebrated Watson Light Artillery of New Orleans.  Two of our pieces were firing upon the guns of the enemy as fast as possible, while the other four threw a perfect hail of canister, shells and spherical case, which must have done an awful execution, as it tore up the ranks of Infantry and killed about all the cannoneers at their guns.  One fellow, we found hammer and spike in hand, ready to spike his gun.  They fought most desperately to gain a victory, but our infantry and artillery was a little too much for them to stand.
Captain Ezra Taylor
Battery B, 1st Illinois Light Artillery

After cleaning out the masked battery of rifled guns and Watson’s battery, we advanced slowly and steadily on to their camp, which was furnished and fixed up far better than any camp in out army, they appeared to have plenty of gold and silver.  I understood the regiments we fought, were the flower of [General Albert S.] Johnston’s army, which may account for their being so much superior in looks and arms.--  We captured two cannons, a number of muskets and a quantity of Maynard and Enfield rifles and some awful looking knives, which gave us a good chance to see for ourselves.

We kept driving them towards the river and were almost sure the day was ours, when they received reinforcements from Columbus, which gave them new courage and our exhausted troops were too tired to make a bold stand, besides the most of them had shot away all their ammunition.  To show you, how we fought; each Infantry man received forty rounds and we had when we started 1,100 rounds and only brought about 300, you can have an idea, what shooting was done on our side not speaking of the enemy’s heavy guns, which threw 120-lb. slugs, made to sink our gunboats.  When they fired, the ground fairly trembled; they also used chain shot, which tore down trees two feet in diameter, like pipe stems.  The first introduction I had was a rail fence torn down close by me and then the shell burst and cut off a limb of a big tree 60 feet from the fence.  The firing was kept up for 4½ hours without intermission and the noise sounded like heavy thunder.

Now for the retreat- it beggars all description.  We drew of two of the enemy’s guns, with our two limbers, leaving caissons with the enemy.  We tried to protect the rear with our six guns as well as we could.  Twice I was almost forced to stop clear behind, and made up my mind I would stay with the “Secesh” but fortunately for me, our guns were ordered to make another stand about a mile and a half from the battle field, which gave me a chance to catch up and ride.  I was very thankful; you may be assured.

It was very hard to see the poor wounded fellows lying along the road, some with their arms, others with their legs shot off and many with their heads all crushed in, without being able to give them any assistance.  One poor fellow begged to be killed, as he was suffering the most excruciating pain, one of our men stepped up to him and pierced him through the heart.  I gave one man a drink of water, who had a ball pass through his shoulder, then through his jaw and out by the cheekbone, you can see by that the enemy had very fine arms.
General Ulysses S. Grant
After traveling on the retreat three miles through woods, which were the means of saving a large number from being killed we came up to our boats, which I can assure you we hailed with delight.  We jerked our guns aboard as fast as possible and had everything aboard except one baggage wagon, when the cry came the Secesh are down on us.  You should have seen the excitement on the boats; we cut the rope and made off the shore as quick as possible.  We had just shoved off when then commenced to fire on us and we received the fire of about 100 Infantry and the way the glass and splinters flew, was a caution.  Our gunboats then opened upon them, as well as three of our guns aboard the boat and the way they were slaughtered was awful.  As we understood the next day, when our boat returned, which went down to bring our wounded and bury our dead.  Our men saw the bodies piled in some places four deep.  The Rebels were awful crusty and hardly treated our men civilly.

They said they buried about 500 men that day and were not near done.  They refused to exchange prisoners.  I understood they intended to send them to New Orleans, as they expected another attack on Belmont and Columbus very soon.  The Rebels sent word they would like to meet our battery on friendly terms and swore dire vengeance against us on the battlefield and they would never rest until they broke us up.  Our field officers praised us very highly and acknowledged that had it not been for us many more would never have returned.  Last night we received three cheers from the whole brigades which I assure you this quite an honor.  The greatest wonder is that only three of our men were wounded- considering we were exposed to the hottest firing for 4 ½ hours. They all say our battery is immortalized –as for the Infantry they fairly worship us and have given us the name of “Taylor’s devils.”  I hope, that the next time we have an engagement we will come out as sound as this.

Otho Klemm


Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Charging Battery Robinett: An Alabama Soldier Recalls the Vicious Fighting at Corinth

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign

The Legend of Leatherbreeches: Hubert Dilger in the Atlanta Campaign

In front of Atlanta with the 68th Ohio

A Fight for Corn: Eight Medals of Honor Awarded at Nolensville