The Pelicans Save the Guns at Belmont

     Like the battle of Shiloh fought five months later, the Battle of Belmont was marked by the raw inexperience of the soldiers of both armies that fought it. A prime example of this is the story of the 11th Louisiana who arrived on the field late in the battle and was sent out to flank the Union line and recapture the four guns of Watson’s Battery.

“We came out of the woods immediately in their rear and seeing them drawn up in line of battle without discovering their colors, we hesitated to fire, thinking them our Tennessee regiments that were endeavoring to flank them on the left,” one veteran remembered. “At this moment, Major E.G.W. Butler of the 11th Louisiana rode forward to ascertain who they were and having descried the “stars and stripes,” endeavored to fall back to his regiment when he fell, seriously wounded, under a volley of musketry from the Federals.  This was to us the signal for an advance and loud was the shout of vengeance that rang through our lines as we made an impetuous charge and recaptured the Watson Battery. For a few minutes, the scene was terrific, but our gallant boys, nothing daunted, pressed hotly on and the enemy was scattered in an inglorious flight, leaving guns, blankets, knapsacks, ammunition, all in wild confusion.”

The history of the 11th Louisiana Volunteers in the Civil War was a short one; the regiment was mustered into Confederate service August 18, 1861 at Camp Moore, Louisiana and a year later was ordered disbanded by General Braxton Bragg. In that year, it fought in three battles: Belmont, Shiloh, and Farmington, losing its major in each of the first two engagements. The 11th Louisiana performed its most noteworthy service in its first battle at Belmont but at the hefty cost of Major Butler and more than 50 killed or wounded. 

Today’s post features a fine account of that battle written by a soldier who went by the pen name of “Julius” and served in Co. F ("The Continental Guards") of the 11th Louisiana. His two letters describing Belmont were published in subsequent issues of the Athens Post of Athens, Tennessee; both were written in camp at Columbus, Kentucky, the first was dated November 8th and the second, a more polished account, was written on November 11th. I have combined the two letters to render a more readable account.

 

Louisiana State Militia button depicting a pelican feeding four chicks. The white pelican has been associated with Louisiana since it became a state in 1812 and the pelican replaced an eagle on the state seal. The state not only had an abundant population of pelicans, but its choice as state symbol had religious overtones as well. The large French Creole and Catholic population of the time equated the ancient belief that a pelican would tear its own flesh to feed its young with the sacrifice of Christ's flesh for his people, so it was a symbol of piety and charity. In addition, the outstretched wings of the pelican resembled the French fleur-de-lis, so the adoption of the pelican also paid homage to the state's French roots. 

          On the night previous to the attack, about 5,000 troops were landed some six or eight miles above Columbus on the Missouri side by the Federals and were reinforced early on the morning of the 7th by 3,000 more from Bird Point. The plan of attack, as we have since learned, meditated an assault simultaneously on three different places. The 8,000 above mentioned were to attack our forces on the Missouri side above Columbus; the gunboats were to engage our batteries on the river, and a large force was to have passed through Mayfield and attack us in the rear on the Kentucky side. This was certainly the result of consummate military skill, and the only plan by which our forces could have been defeated.

November 7, 1861 assuredly was to us one of great excitement and hard fighting. Early in the morning, two Cairo gunboats came down and barraged our batteries while other boats were landing troops on the Missouri side. We had the Watson Battery together with a regiment of Arkansas troops [the 13th under Colonel James C. Tappan] stationed opposite this place, which troops and battery were the object of attack with the ultimate design of taking Columbus if successful in the first engagement.

          The firing began about 10 a.m. and raged furiously for some time when it was perceived that without reinforcements our men were certainly beaten. With characteristic promptitude, General Leonidas Polk ordered several regiments from this side but still the fight was unequal and the enemy gained ground. I must here remark that most of our regiments are unfilled and considered as battalions.

General Leonidas Polk

The 11th Louisiana under Colonel Samuel Marks and the 2nd Tennessee under Colonel J. Knox Walker were ordered across the river. At this juncture, our regiment, the 11th Louisiana, arrived on the ground. The Federals by this time had gained the skirts of the camping ground and captured the Watson Battery which they had turned upon our forces and were pouring into us a withering fire of grape and canister. At this critical juncture, General Gideon Pillow ordered a flank movement which was executed by the 11th Louisiana in conjunction with a Tennessee regiment. The enemy had by this time turned our own guns upon us and were doing fearful destruction with grape and canister shot into the ranks of our gallant army.

We obeyed orders promptly but by some move unaccountable, we came out of the woods immediately in their rear and seeing them drawn up in line of battle without discovering their colors, we hesitated to fire, thinking them our Tennessee regiments that were endeavoring to flank them on the left. [Reportedly, someone from the Federal line yelled out “For God’s sake, don’t fire on us, we are friends.”] At this moment, Major E.G.W. Butler of the 11th Louisiana rode forward to ascertain who they were and having descried the “stars and stripes,” endeavored to fall back to his regiment when he fell, seriously wounded, under a volley of musketry from the Federals.  This was to us the signal for an advance and loud was the shout of vengeance that rang through our lines as we made an impetuous charge and recaptured the Watson Battery. For a few minutes, the scene was terrific, but our gallant boys, nothing daunted, pressed hotly on and the enemy was scattered in an inglorious flight, leaving guns, blankets, knapsacks, ammunition, all in wild confusion.



Our forces pursued them to their gunboats and succeeded in killing many before they could affect an escape. The enemy succeeded in saving their transport vessels. All the loss I sustained was the crown of my cap and a bunch of hair which was carried off by a Minie ball. Our loss is about 125 killed, 150 wounded, and 70 prisoners; the loss of the enemy is about 250 killed, 250-300 wounded, and about 250 prisoners. Our regiment lost 10 killed and 43 wounded; Major Butler and Lieutenant Alexander of the 11th Louisiana were killed. The Continental Guards, the company to which I belong, lost two killed and two wounded and came near losing another about my size and age, but I am still all right and ready for another fight.

"I find this fact from a little experience that it is much more difficult to get an accurate account of a battle where so many claim so much for themselves as heroes and so few are willing to be responsible for disasters than any other species of information I ever tried to obtain." ~ Surgeon Emmet Woodward, 154th (Senior) Tennessee Regiment

The number of the enemy, as we learned from captive officers was about 8,000. We had about 7,000 on the ground. The Federals attribute their failure of the 7th to a non-compliance of the gunboats and the troops on the Kentucky side to their part of the contract, and seem determined to try the plan again. Our time since the battle has been principally occupied in the humane work of giving requisite attention to the wounded and a proper disposition of the dead. Our hospitals are filled with the wounded of both parties and I am happy to state those of the enemy receive the same kind attention and judicious treatment as our own.

 To learn more about the Battle of Belmont, click on the following links:

"Our Maiden Fight: The 13th Tennessee at Belmont" from July 2021

"Standing Up to the Work: A Captain's View of Belmont" (22nd Illinois) from January 2021

"The Killing End of the Business: The 27th Illinois at Belmont" from December 2020

"A Dutchman at Belmont" (Battery B, 1st Illinois Light Artillery) from July 2020


This set of silk 12-star national colors was reportedly carried by the 11th Louisiana at Belmont and has inscribed upon it the battle honor "Belmont," date date of the action, and a memorial to Major Butler. The close resemblance between the stars and bars and the stars and stripes led to confusion on the battlefield (as it did at Belmont), and these flags were replaced in 1862 by a multitude of designs in the western theater.  (Shiloh National Battlefield)


Sources:

Letters from Julius, Co. F, 11th Louisiana Volunteers, Athens Post (Tennessee), November 15, 1861, pg. 2 and November 22, 1861, pg. 1

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