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The Battle of Athens

(Reprinted with permission from the Athens State Historic Site brochure “The Battle of Athens,” Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Historic Preservation)

The echoes of Fort Sumpter had scarcely died away, and already northeastern Missouri was in the grip of anarchy. The people had chosen sides, and each side meant to prevail. Ambushes and assassinations were common, and men argued daily over which flag to raise above the county courthouses.

To protect themselves, their families, and their cause, men began to band together – the Unionists as Home Guards and the Secessionists as State Guard units. By the summer of 1861, all that was lacking was a leader on each side who could draw the scattered units together, and settle the matter once and for all.

In June, William Bishop, a wealth commission merchant on the Mississippi River above Keokuk, Iowa, and an ardent Unionist, went to St. Louis to accept an appointment as colonel of U.S. Volunteers with authority to raise Home Guards in the northeastern counties. One of his first Home Guard captains was David Moore.

Moore, the harsh and fearless son of Scot-Irish immigrants, had served as a captain of Ohio Volunteers in the Mexican War, and so was acquainted with military life. He at least “could tell the difference between cartridge powder and black sand.” A contemporary described Moore as a man who “could get madder and swear longer without repeating himself than any man I ever knew.”

Moore immediately raised a company of 10 men, and wasted no time in enlisting others. The brusque Moore soon placarded Clark County with the following invitation and challenge:

The undersigned is authorized to raise a company of volunteers in this county for Union service. All who are willing to fight for their homes, their country, and the flag of our glorious Union are invited to join him, bringing with them their arms and ammunition. Until the government can aid us, we must take care of ourselves. Secessionists and rebel traitors desiring a fight can be accommodated on demand.      D. Moore

In a few days, Moore had a hundred recruits, and other leading citizens of Clark and surrounding counties rose to form companies of their own. By July, with secessionist forces growing more numerous and bold, the leaders of the scattered Home Guards resolved to unify their troops under a single command. At a July 4 rally in the village of Kahoka, the First Northeast Missouri Regiment was born, with David Moore delivered as commander and styled colonel.

Temporary camps were set up and men began to drill. All provisions were furnished by the men themselves or by loyal friends. The Government was not yet inclined to intervene in a squabble far to the west.

Meanwhile, Martin Green, a judge of the Lewis County Court and brother of Missouri’s pro-Confederate U.S. Senator, James S. Green, had organized a sizable rebel force in Lewis County, which set about harassing Unionists in that county.

When a Union force from Illinois crossed into Missouri to quell a Fourth of July riot in the Lewis County town of Canton, Green decided that the time had come for Southern men to act. He summoned all State Guardsmen and potential recruits to a training camp on the Horseshoe Bend of the Fabius River near Monticello. In mid-July, Green was elected colonel. Among the thousand men assembled in the Rebel camp were two sons of David Moore.

With the smoldering tinder of war in northeast Missouri about to burst into flame, Moore felt it would be prudent to move into camp at Athens. Here he would be close to a source of much-needed supplies over the Des Moines Valley Railroad, which lay in Iowa directly across from Athens. Before moving to Athens, Moore decided to strike a blow against secessionist marauders in western Clark County. On July 21, Moore’s force of about 500, reinforced with a company of Warsaw (Illinois) Grays and Croton (Iowa) Home Guards, marched against a rebel force under Maj. Benjamin Shacklett at Etna.

Upon entering the town the next day, a passing band of Shacklett’s horsemen skirmished briefly with Moore’s advance, fired a volley that sailed over the heads of one of the mounted Union companies, and quickly fled to the countryside. The lone casualty, a southern sympathizer, died that evening in the town’s tavern.

Moore now retired to Athens, where he furloughed some of his men to tend their farms, and began teaching the rudiments of military drill to the remaining 400 troops. On July 25, a delegation of prominent Clark County citizens, alarmed at the prospect of bloodshed, called on Moore at Joseph Benning’s house in Athens to implore Moore and his followers to “stack arms.” Such a gesture, they pleaded, would be followed in like manner by Green. Moore’s reply quickly ended the negotiation: “If Mart Green desires to avoid the shedding of blood, he had better keep his men beyond the range of my muskets.”

Local pro-secessionists, enraged by Moore’s reply, now urged Martin Green to move against Moore and disperse or capture his regiment. Near the end of July, Green moved his camp to Edina and began to prepare for an attack.

At his camp at Athens, Moore was ill-prepared to meet it. Although he had requested military arms and provisions weeks before, the number of men still far exceeded the muskets. Luck was to intervene, however, and sustain Moore’s gallantry.

Cyrus Bussey, military advisor to Iowa Governor Samuel Kirkwood, had gone to St. Louis late in July to ask the Union commander there, Major General John C. Fremont, for a major shipment of arms for the defense of southern Iowa. Fremont informed Bussey that, beyond what already had been shipped, he had no guns to spare. Bussey was only authorized to ship ammunition on hand in the city’s arsenal and to move two units of Iowa infantry to Keokuk.

While visiting Keokuk in the afternoon of August 2, Bussey learned that a freight train had arrived carrying a thousand .58-caliber Springfield muskets destined for the 4th Iowa forming at Council Bluffs. Putting a lack of legal authority aside, Bussey chose “at once…to seize the arms and use them to arm the people for their own protection.” Bussey traveled up the Des Moines Valley Railroad, dispensing arms and provisions to anxious Home Guard commanders. At Croton, directly across the river from Athens, he left 200 muskets for David Moore.

On August 3, after issuing a proclamation of amnesty to all who would submit to “the lawful militia of Missouri,” Green moved from his camp at Edina to attack the Federal camp at Athens. The next evening, Green, with about a thousand men and three pieces of artillery (one a hollow log), camped on the Fox River near Chambersburg, only seven miles west of Athens. None of the men had military weapons or uniforms.

As Green marched, alarm spread quickly through Clark County. Some exaggerated reports of Green’s strength reached as high as 4,000. On Sunday night, August 4, the young son of Moore’s regimental chaplain galloped into the Union camp at Athens to warn Moore and his father of an impending attack. Moore immediately dispatched pickets under Capt. William Harle to patrol the Fox River all night. He then sent to Keokuk for help. By midnight, 75-80 men of Sample’s City Rangers and Belknap’s City Rifles had reached Croton, but, as a witness commented later, the captains suddenly were afflicted with “states rights” and “would not pass over the river.”

Just before 5 o’clock on the morning of August 5, Harle rode in to alert Moore that Green’s attack was imminent. The “long roll” was sounded and Moore quickly formed his men into line to meet the oncoming Rebel army. The battle line that was taken ran east and west along Spring Street, facing up Thome Street to a ridge southwest of the town. As Moore paced up and down the line, he dispatched mounted pickets under captains William McKee and Oliver Payne to the top of the ridge to ascertain the deployment of Green’s troops.

Just as they reached the crest of the ridge, Payne’s riders spied Green’s artillery, spun around in panic, and, as a rifleman recounted later, “quietly rode past our line, down the hill, and across the river, many of them never to come back.” McKee’s horsemen, however, resisted the Rebel advance long enough to give Moore time to form his men for battle.

It was not quite 5:30 a.m. when Green’s advance appeared on the ridge. The Rebel artillery, a nine-pounder and a six-pounder, under Capt. J.W. Kneisley, was placed in a road at the brow of the hill overlooking the Federal position. The Rebels, on foot after tethering their horses in the woods a few hundred yards to the rear, formed on either side of the cannons.

A detachment of Green’s right wing, under Maj. Ben Shacklett, swept around the town to the east, and advanced westward toward the Federal left flank through Widow Gray’s cornfield next to the river. Green’s left wing, under captains Dull and Kimbrough, swung around to the river on the west, while Green held the center himself.

Thus the two lines faced one another, a mere 300 yards apart at the center; the Federals encircled on three sides with a wide river flowing at their backs; the men on both sides jittery and frightened, most never having fired a rifle at another in anger. Although most of them hoped that what was about to happen would never happen here, before them stood the unthinkable terror of war, in the faces of their own neighbors and even their own sons.

To meet the attack, Moore sent captains Barton Hackney and John Cox with about 60 men to resist the assault by Dull and Kimbrough at Stallion Branch in the woods west of the town. Down the river against Shacklett at Widow Gray’s, he sent the commander of his left wing, the Reverend Charles Callihan, with a company of infantry under Capt. Elsbury Small, and a troop of Clark County horsemen under Capt. Henry Spellman.

At 5:30, Green’s artillery roared to life, firing down the main street at the center of the Federal line. One of the cannon, improvised from a hollow log, exploded with its first shot, injuring several artillerymen. The other cannon fire was largely ineffective, most of the cannon balls flying over the river into Iowa. Two shots smashed through the roof of the railroad depot in Croton, while at least three landed in a graveyard half a mile into Iowa. One ball passed directly through the house of Joe Benning in Athens. The house, which still stands in the state park at Athens, bears two hole made by the cannon ball, one by the front door where it entered and the other in the kitchen wall where the ball exited.

In a few moments, small arms fire erupted from the center of the opposing lines and spread quickly to the flanks. Through the incessant crash and smoke of the gunfire, the Rebel line slowly began to move forward, closing the coil around the encircled Federal regiment. The line moved hesitantly, the now terrified and excited men pausing to load and fire volleys into the Federal positions; the rapid fire from their rifles and shotguns was met by a steady volley of Federal muskets. As of yet, neither side seemed disposed to flee the fight.

The crash of volleys and artillery raged on for some minutes, the Rebels valiantly trying to carry the field, and the Federals holding steadfast in line. Suddenly, to the east, Callihan spotted Shacklett’s stronger force advancing through the cornfield. “Come on men!” yell the “fighting parson” as he wheeled his horse around. “We’ll never stop ‘em!” Spurring his mount, he dashed toward the river, with Spellman’s riders thundering after him into Iowa. But, as Moore reported later, “Captain Small and his men stood just where they were posted.” The huge 350-pound infantry captain stood before his frightened men, waving a huge rifle above his head, exhorting them to stand fast and fight harder. Despite Callihan and Spellman’s defection, the Federal left flank was holding.

To the west at Stallion Branch, Hackney’s men peppered away at the Rebels from the dense brush. The fusillade from both sides roared on. Soon blood began to flow; men fell dead; others staggered, dazed and wounded. Amidst the smoke and confusion, the advancing line halted and then wavered. The climax of the battle was at hand. Green saw it and sought to rally his forces to actions. Moore saw it too and out of the din his voice bellowed an order: “Forward! Charge bayonets!”

With a yell, the Federal center surged forward, up Thome Street, across yards and field, gleaming bayonets outstretched before it. The sight of cold, pointed steel was too much the inexperienced troops to bear. The Rebel center quivered, then broke, the men rushing to the rear in panic.

With the center in flight, the Rebel flanks inevitably began to crumble. Shacklett, with an ugly wound in his neck, sought to draw off his troops in good order. But, seized by panic, his men dashed through the cornfield and down the river, fleeing to the east. Meanwhile, Kneisley managed to limber up his cannons and went crashing down the road out of town. Only Dull and Kimbrough were able to retreat in any semblance of organization.

Seeing the Rebel line give way before them, Moore’s troops quickly bolted forward, ignoring the commander’s order to maintain alignment. The Rebels fled in such panic that many did not even stop to retrieve their horses. After chasing the State Guard for nearly a mile, Moore was able to re-form his men, begin to gather up the fruits of the victory, and care for the dying and wounded.

The battle for northeast Missouri was over. Its outcome: northeast Missouri was to remain in Union control for the remainder of the war.

The battle at Athens lasted less than two hours. In the fight that secured northeast Missouri for the Union, Moore reported that the Rebels lost 31 men, killed and wounded, while his own casualties numbered 23. Among the fruits of victory, he listed “four hundred and fifty horses, saddles and bridles complete, hundreds of arms, and a wagon load of long knives with which they expected to fight the infantry.”

For all but a few of the men who fought at Athens, this was their first time under fire. But, for most, it was not to be their last. Although the small skirmish here ended the military war in northeast Missouri, the raging Civil War elsewhere soon swallowed up the combatants at Athens. Most went on to continue the fight for their respective sides. David Moore and Martin Green again faced one another across the line of battle less than a year later at Corinth, Mississippi. Green went on to become a brigadier general in the Confederate army, only to lose his life in the trenches at Vicksburg. David Moore also won brigadier’s stars, but lost a leg at Shiloh. Many of the men who fought at Athens never returned from the war.