Standing Up to the Work: A Captain's View of Belmont

     Captain John Seaton walked off the battlefield of Belmont battered but “feeling bully” as the Civil War veterans used to say when they felt elated. “I was hit by a spent ball just under the eye which beyond the effect of bringing the claret did no damage to me,” he commented. The captain had lost his new frock coat and sword in the confusion of the battle but was proud of his battlefield trophy: a Maynard Rifle Carbine that he had purloined from the Confederate camp. “Alton may continue to feel proud of her fair fame, for her boys stood up to the work like veterans. I did not see a man show a disposition to shirk,” he bragged.

Seaton had led Co. B of the 22nd Illinois Infantry at Belmont, and while he was a greenhorn, he had sense enough to follow one of the cardinal rules of a successful commander: march to the sound of the guns. “The battle was raging in all its fury. Thousands of infantrymen were busy keeping up the roar of musketry which was also interspersed with the still louder roar of cannon and the falling of treetops as the balls mowed through them, accompanied by the shouts and screams of men in deadly conflict. This was enough for me to know that we were needed without awaiting orders. I told the men to divest themselves of all surplus weight. I had on my best uniform coat which I pulled off and out away with the balance of some of the men’s things at the foot of a big tree. I rolled up my shirt sleeves and commanded the two companies to follow in double quick time,” he wrote.

Seaton’s account of the action at Belmont was published in the November 15, 1861 issue of the Alton Telegraph.

Unidentified early war Union private wearing eight or nine button shell jacket with epaulettes. 

Camp Lyon, Bird’s Point, Missouri

November 9, 1861

          I take the first opportunity of informing the Alton and Madison County public of the particulars of the desperate fight at Belmont, Missouri opposite Columbus, Kentucky in which the Alton boys more than won laurels of everlasting fame.

          On the evening of the 5th, we received orders to prepare ourselves on the following day with 48-hours’ rations in our haversacks to march somewhere. Well, all was life and bustle in our camp on the 6th. The men were in fine spirits at the prospect of having something more interesting than the dull monotony of camp duties to attend to. On the evening of the 6th, the steamboat Memphis steamed over from Cairo and hauled up at Bird’s Point and took on board the 22nd Illinois. The steamers Chancellor, Montgomery, Key Stena, and Aleck Scott took on the 7th Iowa, 27th Illinois, 30th Illinois, and 31st Illinois.

          We all got under way about 10 p.m. and proceeded slowly down the Mississippi preceded by two of our gunboats. On arriving at Norfolk, we rounded to and lay by the balance of the night on the Kentucky side a little below Norfolk until daybreak of the 7th. We again pushed out and moved slowly down to within three miles of Columbus and landed on the Missouri side just around the bend out of sight of Columbus. Here the troops all disembarked and formed in line in their respective places preparatory to taking up the line of march for Belmont which is immediately opposite Columbus.

          We got all arranged and remained halted in a cornfield for an hour while our gunboats proceeded down and engaged the Columbus batteries. It was but a few minutes after they started until we heard the angry dogs of war bark out in tones of thunder and then the light of battle shown forth in the eyes of our heroic countrymen who were eagerly listening for the command of ‘forward march!’ There we stood for one hour while the battle raged between our gunboats and the Rebel batteries when finally the command was given ‘right face, forward march.’

At the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, Captain Seaton reportedly announced to his company "If I should show the white feather, shoot me dead in my tracks and my family will feel that I died for my country."


We marched quickly by the flank through woods and cornfields alternately until we arrived at a place about one mile from their camo where the column was halted and skirmishing companies thrown forward through the thick woods that encircled their camp to stir them up and ascertain their exact location. I was ordered to take my company (B) and Co. C and deploy them to the left and as soon as the camp was found, to retire back on our regiment which was to remain where I left it; it being General Grant’s design to use the 22nd Illinois as a reserve. I took my division and threw out skirmishers and scoured the woods for half a mile bearing towards the river without discovering any of the enemy when suddenly away on our right there began some scattering firing which indicated that the skirmishers on the right flank had come in contact with the Rebel skirmishers. After proceeding a few yards further, the firing on our right become general, an unceasing roar of musketry. Then I gave the command to ‘rally on the battalion’ which we did in good order. But on arriving at the place where we had left our regiment, it was not to be found, having all gone to the scene of the action. All that was left were two hospital wagons under the charge of Charles W.H. Brudon. Charley said they left no instructions for me.

The battle was raging in all its fury. Thousands of infantrymen were busy keeping up the roar of musketry which was also interspersed with the still louder roar of cannon and the falling of treetops as the balls mowed through them, accompanied by the shouts and screams of men in deadly conflict. This was enough for me to know that we were needed without awaiting orders. I told the men to divest themselves of all surplus weight. I had on my best uniform coat which I pulled off and out away with the balance of some of the men’s things at the foot of a big tree. I rolled up my shirt sleeves and commanded the two companies to follow in double quick time.

First Lt. James N. Morgan
Co. B, 22nd Illinois Infantry

We made our way through the woods crossing a valley on the way which brought to my mind the “valley of the shadow of death.” Sergeant Frank Allen and I pushed along shoulder to shoulder with my division following in good order, every few paces meeting some poor fellow making his way back to the hospital to have a wound dressed and occasionally some being borne back by the musicians who were detailed for that duty. I frequently made inquiry about where to find the 22nd, but none knew where they were. The only reply was “they’re in there somewhere.” We finally got into the thickest of the fight. Balls flew around us like hailstones as we pushed from tree to tree, firing and charging bayonets alternately. Slowly the enemy was driven from place to place. In vain did they attempt to rally and beat us back, but the impetuosity of our boys knew no control and they beat them at every point. For two hours the fight raged before we beat them back out of the woods towards their camps. They finally fell back to their entrenchments and there disputed our further advance for two more long hours.

When our boys effected an entrance and got our battery inside of their camp, then was the first time I came across the 22nd Illinois as they were with the cannons along with the 7th Iowa. I rushed in with my little band and came running up to get my place in line, and then it was that cheer after cheer rent the air from our regiment as they had made up their mind that we had been cut off and taken by the enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Hart was in command of our regiment, Colonel Dougherty being in command of our brigade. I got up and took my position in line on the right of our regiment which brought us just behind our battery which was playing lively on the enemy. We soon silenced the enemy’s cannon on the Missouri side and drove them entirely off the field; they then ceased firing and we had the field. We then went to destroying their tents and property after doing which the command came to retire to the boats. In the meantime, though, our battery and the Columbus guns were at work exchanging friendly salutations. While they were at work, we discovered a large steamboat and a sternwheeler coming up the river literally black with troops. We turned one of our guns on them and compelled them to retire.

Second Lt. Robert H. Clift
Co. B, 22nd Illinois


          As the army was retiring, I saw that we were leaving two of the enemy’s cannon on the riverbank. I called to some of my men to come and assist me in hauling them off. They were fine brass pieces and named Jeff Davis, which was engraved on the top of one of them. I got one off 100 yards when some of our artillery coming along, hitched it on to theirs and then went and got the other one and hitched it the same way. Those two pieces we now have at Bird’s Point.

          We got started and then came the tug of war. They had managed to get reinforcements over from Columbus to number of 7,000 men and had formed in ambush for a mile in length on each side of us. The boys had to fight their way through. Men dropped all around me. It was a fearful and terrible fire they opened upon us. We managed to get through in tolerable good order and got our wounded aboard in a hurry, for it was ascertained that the enemy was in pursuit. Just as we were ready to back out into the stream, they made their appearance on the bank of the river and poured in a most destructive fire upon us. Our gunboats opened out on them with grape and canister and mowed them down by scores. We kept up from the boats a running fire for some minutes, but finally got out of reach of them. It was then sundown and that terrible day’s work was ended. I must here state that one of the guns captured is the “Lee,” which was used with such terrible effect at the Manassas battle. It is a 12-lb howitzer.

          I was hit by a spent ball just under the eye which beyond the effect of bringing the claret did no damage to me. I lost my coat and also my sword that Charley Steiner used to own. I still have the scabbard but the sword I guess is taken prisoner. I have a splendid Maynard Rifle Carbine which I brought along with me that I obtained in their camp. Lieutenant [Robert H.] Clift was with me assisting in the command. Lieutenant [James N.] Morgan was acting adjutant of our regiment during the day and did his duty bravely.

The Maynard rifled carbine was introduced in 1858 and saw service in the Civil War primarily with cavalry units. A couple thousand of these weapons saw service with several Southern states including South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia. The gun was available in both .35 caliber and .50 caliber and fired a brass cartridge. 

Alton may continue to feel proud of her fair fame for her boys stood up to the work like veterans. I did not see a man show a disposition to shirk. We attacked in the first place three times our number and then had the 7,000 fresh ones to break through. We did not have over 3,500 in the field. Their camp showed they must have had from 10,000 to 12,000 men. Several prisoners told me they had 12,000 men there at breakfast time. I know our regiment had in the expedition a little over 500 men and we were as large as any of the others if not larger. I asked one prisoner how many men they had. He said, “I declare, sir, I do not know. This place was covered with me this morning.”

          The people of Columbus were eager spectators of the fight. It was a beautiful sight to look across the river and see the crowds on the levee watching us. There was one regiment drawn up in line also on the levee and a little distance above on the hill could be seen the enemy’s camp. The white tents covering the hill and three or four regiments were drawn up there watching the progress of the Stars and Stripes as they slowly gained ground, bearing closer and closer to the river till finally they waved triumphantly over that bloodstained field. I took into the fight two sergeants, four corporals, and 46 privates. Colonel Dougherty is taken prisoner and has had his leg amputated just below the knee. Captains Challenor and Abbott are wounded and prisoners at Columbus. Lieutenants Smith of Co. G and Adams of Co. D are also wounded and prisoners. The losses of our regiment are 24 killed, 72 wounded, and 85 missing.

 

Source:

Letter from Captain John Seaton, Co. B, 22nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Alton Telegraph (Illinois), November 15, 1861, pg. 3

Comments

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 Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Federal Arms in the Stones River Campaign

Escape of Captain Henry H. Alban of the 21st Ohio Infantry

Knapsack Compression: Wilbur Hinman recalls the first step of becoming a veteran

Federal Arms in the Chickamauga Campaign