The morning of 7th November 1861 found the men of the 2nd Tennessee Volunteer Infantryin camp around the town of Columbus, Kentucky, on the east bank of the Mississippi. Their gaze, along with the majority of Major-General Leonidas Polk’s Confederate force, was drawn to the scenes then unfolding across the river at Belmont, Missouri. A Union Brigadier-General based in Cairo, Illinois, had decided to launch an amphibious operation down the river, and had selected Camp Johnston at Belmont as his target. In what was their first major fight of the war, Ulysses S. Grant’s regiments were now driving the Confederates on the west bank back through their camp towards the Mississippi. As disaster loomed, the 2nd Tennessee were ordered to the boats, and into the fight.

Battle of Belmont

The Battle of Belmont as depicted in Frank Leslie's 1896 'Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War' (University of South Florida)

The 2nd Tennessee Infantry had been organised by Joseph Knox Walker in Memphis, Tennessee the previous May. Walker was the nephew of former United States President James K. Polk and had served as his private secretary in the White House. The regiment consisted almost entirely of Memphis Irishmen, and its 750 soldiers were often called the ‘Irish Regiment’. Knox Walker’s affinity with the Irish was explained by his daughter Sally: ‘Memphis had a large Irish population; my father was their friend and counselor; in politics they followed his lead. So great was his influence with them, and their love for him, that Father Grace presented him with a pew for life in St. Patrick’s Church, now the cathedral, though my father was an Episcopalian. The Irish had followed my father in politics and now they followed him in war.’ By the time of Belmont the 2nd had already earned a reputation for being a bit on the wild side. This is typified by an incident remembered by William Stevenson, who briefly served in the unit, on the lengths the men would go to obtain alcohol. On one occasion, as the Colonel walked past one of the Irishmen’s tents, he saw the man raise his gun to his lips and proceed to take a long swig from the barrel.  Knox Walker asked, ‘Pat, what have you got in your gun, whiskey?’. The Irishman was quick to respond; ‘Colonel, I was looking into the barrel of my gun to see whether she was clean.’ The Colonel walked on, remarking how it was curious that the man’s eyes appeared to be located in his mouth. (1)

The Irishmen had arrived in Columbus by 24th October, and Knox Walker assumed a brigade command. In the late morning of the 7th November, as the battle seemed to be going badly for the Confederates, Brigadier-General Benjamin F. Cheatham ordered the regiment aboard the steamers Prince and Harry W.R. Hill to be ferried across to the fight. They managed to cross without becoming engaged by Federal gunboats, but were greeted by chaotic scenes as they landed. Men crowded the river bank as they sought escape from the Union advance, which had smashed the Confederate line and swept across Camp Johnston.  Total defeat appeared only minutes away, and large numbers of men were in imminent danger of capture. Despite the seemingly desperate situation, the 2nd needed little incentive to fight. They had been told before they crossed that sick men from the 12th Tennessee, which contained a number of Irishmen, had been bayoneted where they lay as the Union troops overran the camp. (2)

Brigadier-General Gideon Pillow was then in command of the Confederate troops on the west bank of the river. He ordered Knox Walker to advance his regiment to meet the enemy and buy time so that the disorganised men on the riverbank could be reformed.  Forming line of battle, the Irishmen plunged forward against the advancing Federal forces. The Union troops were not expecting an attack from fresh troops; as the Irishmen charged into the open field they checked the enemy’s advance, and it took Grant’s men some time to recover. Lieutenant James Walker, Colonel Knox Walker’s nephew, took over command of Company I when his Captain fell wounded. Now he was himself struck by a bullet in the hip, with the ball penetrating through to his intestines. He leaned against a log and continued to give orders for the next twenty minutes, shouting to Lieutenant John Dangan, ‘Fight Daugues, fight or die! Don’t let my men be taken prisoners’ before losing consciousness for the final time. Despite such heroics the 2nd were eventually forced back to the river, taking heavy casualties as they did so. They kept up their fire from this position, moving by the flank along the riverbank.

Battle of Belmont Grant

Map of the Battle of Belmont by Julius Bien & Co.

As the fight raged on the men tried to remain lighthearted. Captain Saffarans of the regiment had waded into the Mississippi early in the battle in an effort to escape the enemy’s fire, when one of the Irishmen shouted after him ‘Captain, dear, are ye off for Memphis? If ye are tell the ould woman the last ye saw ov me I was fighting, while ye were runnin’ away.’ Another Irishman, who was nicknamed ‘Dublin Tricks’, forgot to bite off the end of his cartridge before he rammed it home, so his rifle would not go off. He kept loading the gun with the same result. In an effort to remedy the situation, he pricked some priming into the tube. Predictably things did not end well and ‘both he and the gun went off’. As the men around him laughed, Dublin Tricks retorted ‘Hould, asy with your laffin’ boys; there is sivin more loads in her yit.’ Meanwhile another Irishman in the regiment gave his comrades some sage advice, quipping: ‘Illivate your guns a little lower boys, and ye’ll do more execution.’ (3)

The counterattack of the 2nd Tennessee had not been in vain. Pillow had an opportunity to reorganise his men and more troops were now crossing the river from Columbus. Grant’s troops had themselves become disorganised in their moment of victory, and now with Cheatham ashore with further reinforcements the Union regiments were forced into a general retreat. The 2nd joined in the advance. Seeing the colors of the 7th Iowa, Private David Vollmer of Company K declared that he was going to capture them or die in the attempt. The Federals had not finished fighting though. As the Confederates pressed on with their charge and broke cover, Captain J. Welby Armstrong, who commanded Company G, the ‘Sons of Erin’, disintegrated as he was struck by a shell. Vollmer and his friend Sergeant Dennis Lynch surged forward towards the 7th’s colors, with Vollmer bayoneting his opponent and seizing the flag. No sooner had he accomplished his goal than he and Lynch fell dead, struck by a volley of musketry. (4)

Despite the heavy fighting Ulysses S. Grant and his men were eventually forced back to their landing point at Hunter’s Farm, where they re-embarked and set off back for Cairo. The first major battle in the Western Theater had ended. Although the carnage had been worse than anything any of the men had previously experienced, the war would show them all too quickly that worse was to come. The Memphis Irishmen of the 2nd Tennessee lost 18 men killed, 63 wounded and 33 missing during the battle. It had been a bad day for the Irish of Memphis with the largely Irish 21st Tennessee also taking heavy casualties. These two units, which first fought together on the field at Belmont, would be consolidated in 1862 to form the 5th Confederate Infantry, a regiment which served in Corkman Major-General Patrick Cleburne’s Division. The few survivors would not see their last battle until March 1865, when they would be amongst the final remnants of the Army of Tennessee engaged at Bentonville, North Carolina. C.W. Frazer, who would write a brief history of the 5th Confederate after the war, recalled the performance of the 2nd and 21st Tennessee at Belmont. He remarked: ‘I well remember their dash and courage on that occasion, when with inferior guns, and unused to war or arms, they bore themselves as veterans, which can be accounted for only by their nationality, my observation being that Irishmen take to this as readily “as ducks to water”.’ (5)

(1) Cheairs Hughes Jr. 1991: 122-123, Civil War Centennial Commission of Tennessee 1964: 174, Stevenson 1862: 46; (2) Civil War Centennial Commission of Tennessee 1964: 174, Cheairs Hughes Jr. 1991: 122, Stevenson 1862: 68; (3) Official Records: 326, Stevenson 1862: 70-71, Cheairs Hughes Jr. 1991: 123; (4) Cheairs Hughes Jr. 1991: 144; (5) Cheairs Hughes Jr. 1991: 185, Frazer 1886: 146;

*One of two regiments designated the 2nd Tennessee Infantry, and not to be confused with the Nashville unit organised by William B. Bate.

References & Further Reading

Cheairs Hughes Jr., Nathaniel 1991. The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South

Civil War Centennial Commission of Tennessee 1964. Tennesseans in the Civil War. Part 1.

Frazer, C.W. 1886. ‘Fifth Confederate’ in Lindsley, John Berrien (ed.) The Military Annals of Tennessee: Confederate

Stevenson, William G. 1862. Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army

Official Records Series 1, Volume 3, Chapter 10. Reports of Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, C.S. Army, Commanding First Division

Columbus-Belmont State Park