Established in February 10, 1934
Kentucky is rich in Civil War history. As one of the states that bordered both the Union and the Confederacy, Kentucky seemed destined to be a battleground. Despite the state’s attempted neutrality, the commonwealth soon had troops from both North and South on its soil. The role that the Columbus-Belmont area played in that conflict had a long lasting effect on the outcome of the war.
On February 10, 1934, the Columbus-Belmont State Park, originally named Columbus Belmont Battlefield Memorial Park, became a part of the Kentucky State Parks System. As early as 1931, efforts had been made to acquire the site of the Civil War battlefield and trenches. Attempts at purchasing 110 acres had proven unsuccessful until then. The executive secretary of the parks commission reported that he had made “many trips to Columbus and other towns at which mass meetings and special drives have been made to buy the 110 acres of land which was a part of the old battlefield and trenches at this site.”
After some discussion, the Kentucky General Assembly gave $5,000 for immediate development of the area. On July 4, 1931, Governor Flem D. Sampson (1927-1931) along with a number of prominent Kentuckians attended a celebration to raise private funds for acquisition of the necessary land for the proposed park. The money raised at the celebration bought 90 acres. After another round of visits to the surrounding towns of Clinton, Columbus, Mayfield and Paducah, it seemed sufficient monies had been raised to purchase the remaining acreage. However, due to unclear titles, infant heirs, and other difficulties pertaining to the Great Depression, the project was again postponed. With this setback, the Columbus-Belmont Battlefield Park Association was formed under the oversight of the Kentucky legislature and local citizens. The Association continued raising funds until they could purchase enough land to surround the historic battlefield.
The area around the Columbus-Belmont Battlefield State Park has many historic connections. In the 1670s Frenchmen Marquette and Joliet explored the area where Columbus now stands. Originally called Iron Banks due to the deposits of iron ore in the bluffs along the river, the settlement changed its name to Columbus and attempted to have the U.S. capital moved from Washington to western Kentucky. Washington D.C. had been burned by the British during the War of 1812. The nation’s capital stayed in Washington, but Columbus did grow to be an important river town.
Columbus again became the center of national attention in the opening months of the Civil War. The town had the distinction of being the opening phase of the Federal campaign to secure the West. On September 1, 1861, General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union District of Southeast Missouri, secured Cairo, Ill. and Paducah. His forces then moved on to take the high ground around Columbus. To his surprise Confederate General Leonidas Polk moved up from Tennessee and took the heights. The Confederates established a camp at Belmont, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. Both Confederate and Union forces had now violated Kentucky’s neutrality forcing the state to ultimately choose the Union.
The military advantage of taking the heights could not be overlooked. Confederate guns now looked down on the Mississippi River giving the South a defensible and controlling position of that vital waterway. The Confederacy began to fortify the bluffs above Columbus to such an extent that many military experts felt the position to be impregnable. During the autumn and winter of 1861, the South had 19,000 men laboring on the fortifications around Columbus. Confederate forces installed 140 siege guns along the heights and extended a huge chain across the Mississippi to stop Union gunboats and other vessels from navigating the river. By the time the Confederates finished their work, Columbus had become the most heavily fortified place in North America. It earned the sobriquet, the “Gibraltar of the West.”
Grant upon hearing that General Polk intended to bring more Confederate troops into the area decided that an attack on Belmont had to take place. Union forces landed on the Missouri shore and attacked the Confederate camp forcing them to retreat. Grant’s men turned Belmont’s guns on Columbus and began to fire on the Confederate defenses. The Southern artillery fire from the opposing heights became so deadly that Grant had to retreat to Union gunboats. The Confederate bombardment of Grant and his men came from 140 cannons, including the famous 15,000 pound, 6.4 inch Andersen Rifle known as “Lady Polk.” Named in honor of General Leonidas Polk’s wife, the Lady Polk cannon could fire a 128-pound projectile for three miles.
Columbus could not be taken by direct assault, but it could be outflanked. The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862 had opened a route into central Tennessee. General Polk wanted to withstand a siege, but his superiors ordered Columbus to be evacuated. On March 3, 1862, Union troops occupied the Confederate fortifications at Columbus. This victory gave Grant and the Union their first success in securing the Mississippi and thus cutting the Confederacy in two.
After the end of the Civil War, Columbus continued to prosper. The Mississippi remained the town’s commercial lifeline. The river also became the town’s worst enemy. In 1927 the greatest flood in the history of the river destroyed most of Columbus. Of the 56 buildings in downtown section, all but 13 were swept away by the raging floodwaters. Although their community had been devastated, a piece of history had been uncovered. The huge chain that had once spanned the Mississippi had been nearly forgotten. The floodwaters uncovered it and now the community wanted to preserve this relic of the past.
To prevent future disasters such as the 1927 flood, the town of Columbus was moved to higher ground. One of the people who came to help the stricken community did more than just provide aid. F. Marion Rust of the Red Cross also studied the extremely well preserved Civil War era fortifications. He studied the area and began to formulate plans to make a memorial park on the site.
In March 1934, the federal government agreed to accept the area as a state park project and assist by placing a CCC Camp at the site. The Department of the Interior established the camp on July 17, 1934 with Rust as project superintendent. The CCC workers were invaluable to the success of Columbus-Belmont State Park.
The park at Columbus-Belmont covers 160 acres and has on display part of the chain and a huge anchor used during the Civil War to bar the Mississippi. There is also an antebellum home built in 1850 that once served as a Confederate hospital. The home now houses a museum. The park has picnic grounds, a playground, a gift shop, and a miniature golf course. The historic fortifications are still recognizable and serve as a reminder of the days of the American Civil War.