The battle of Athens was not in any sense a great battle, and in comparison with many subsequent engagements, it may have been deemed insignificant. It was, however, among the first of the conflicts between Union and Confederate forces upon the soil of Missouri, and was also among the earliest engagements of the war of the Rebellion, having been fought on the 5th day of August, 1861. I have been unable to find in the published official "war records" any account of this engagement, and this fact, among others, has led to the preparation of this paper. The fact that at this battle, the blood of Missouri and Iowa soldiers was shed in the cause of the Union, is of itself enough to make it our duty to preserve from oblivion the story of the struggle and victory. But this is not all. The engagement viewed in the light of the moral effect, and of the more substantial results achieved, was by no means unimportant of insignificant. Those of us who then resided in the immediate vicinity well remember the feeling of relief with which we heard that the rebel forces under Green had been defeated and driven back in confusion from the Iowa border, and it is difficult now to estimate the effect upon the gathering hosts of rebellion in Northern Missouri. It was, as I have stated, the first conflict in that part of the State, and the result was awaited with intense anxiety by both the loyal and disloyal. The latter were boastful and confident of victory, and their surprise was only exceeded by their disappointment when they were informed of the cool bravery of Moore and his men, who proved themselves more than a match for their rebel foes.
Athens is a village of several hundred inhabitants situated on the Des Moines river about twenty miles above its mouth, in Clark county, Missouri. The Des Moines river at the point and from there to its mouth, is the dividing line between Missouri and Iowa. Opposite to Athens on the Iowa side of the river is the village of Croton, and twenty miles distant is the city of Keokuk on the Mississippi river in Iowa, three miles above the Des Moines. Croton is a point upon the Keokuk and Des Moines branch of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, and prior to the battle a considerable quantity of military stores and provisions was known to have been stored at that place. In the spring and early summer of 1861, Captain Nathaniel Lyon, U.S.A., then commanding Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis, gave permission to David Moore of Canton to raise troops for the defense of Northeastern Missouri. I am not advised as to Captain Lyon's jurisdiction in the premises, and finding no official record upon the subject, I am led to think that possibly the organization was in a measure voluntary; a sort of spontaneous rising and coming together of loyal men for the defense of themselves and the flag. No doubt the gallant Lyon gave encouragement, and such sanction as was possible under the circumstances, to the movement. At all events, a large meeting was held at Kahoka, in Clark county, some time, I think, in May, 1861, at which it was determined to raise a regiment and equip it as well as possible for the service above indicated, and by the early part of June a force of seven hundred men had been enrolled and sworn into the United States service for three years, or during the war. As soon as possible after the organization was completed the command marched upon AEtna, Scotland county, Missouri, where a rebel force was stationed, under Major Schacklett. This force retreated before Moore, with little resistance, and hoisting the stars ad stripes, Col. Moore and his command proceeded to Athens, where they went into camp to await supplies. While in this camp the men were subjected to military discipline and drill until August 4th, when Col. Moore said, in a letter I have lately received from him: "My scouts who were kept many miles in the front, reported the enemy advancing in strong force from the direction of Edina under command of Martin E. Green, colonel, and another force under Colonel Franklin, from Lancaster county, Missouri."
Col. Moore's brief account of the fight is as follows: -"The two rebel forces, variously estimated at from nine to fifteen hundred men, formed a junction at or near AEtna, Missouri, and camped in the Fox river timber about four miles from Athens. A dispatch was sent to Keokuk notifying the citizens that the enemy was advancing in strong force from Athens, and in two hours two companies of the City Rifles arrived under the command of the gallant William W. Belknap. With this command came Hugh W. E. Sample, John W. Noble and others, numbering upwards of eighty men. Many who here fired their first shots at an enemy, afterwards joined Iowa regiments and won immortal honors on many great battle fields for the Union and freedom.
"During the night of the 4th, the line of sentinels was often visited by grand-rounds and instructed in their duty. At sunrise on the morning of August the 5th, the advance mounted pickets were driven in, the long roll was beat to arms and in one minute a line of battle was formed and told off in groups of forty men. Each of my commands numbered three hundred and thirty-three in line. Green opened two pieces of artillery upon the center. The right of his line was touching the river upon my right. Maj. Schacklet, with his battalion was on Green's right with their flank opposite the Iowa boys on the other side of the river. When the artillery opened, my mounted horsemen filed, across the river, and Captain Spellman, with his company, also crossed with his colors flying; but Captain Small and his company stood just where they were posted. Nearly all the enemy's cannon shot flew over our heads. The women and children of the village were sent to a big mill under a steep bluff, where they were sheltered from the fire of the enemy; and the prisoners were sent under a strong guard to Croton, opposite Athens. The firing soon became general on the whole line. They were armed with shot-guns and squirrel rifles, which were no match for our improved muskets. The fight had lasted nearly two hours, when those posted on the right and left were ordered by me to stand fast and the center to fix bayonets and move forward in common time. The men, however, soon broke into a charge, and the enemy fled in every direction from the field."
Colonel Moore states that the number killed and wounded of the enemy was estimated at thirty-one and over, and that the killed and wounded in his command numbered twenty-three. He also says, "As the fruits of the victory we captured many prisoners, 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."
Speaking of the rebel commander in this early engagement, Col. Moore says: "General Martin E. Green was a brother to Senator James S. Green, and was afterwards killed on the works at Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was not a brilliant man like his brother, but was regarded as a very worthy citizen of Lewis county, Missouri. He had no knowledge of tactics or military evolutions, yet many of his command who remained in the service became good soldiers." The purpose of Green's attack upon Athens was believed to be primarily, to defeat and disperse Moore's command and thus establish the supremacy of the rebel cause in that portion of Northern Missouri, and secondarily to cross the Des Moines river, invade Iowa and capture the supplies at Croton. And many believed that the programme included, in case these points was successfully accomplished an attack on the city of Keokuk.
Immediately after the battle, Colonel Moore, with his command, started in pursuit of the rebel forces. Later he was joined by other troops under the command of Generals Pope and Hurlbut. Green's command was pursued by these troops for many days, but could not be brought to an engagement. His forces sometimes numbered as high as three or four thousand men, but they would disperse when about to be attacked and re-assemble later at another place. Moore's victory at Athens seems to have greatly demoralized them. If Moore had been defeated, it might have been almost equally disastrous.
It seems proper that I should conclude this paper with a brief sketch of the gallant soldier who commanded the little Union army and won the first Union victory battle in the State of Missouri. Colonel, now General David Moore, who so gallantly and ably defeated Athens, is still a resident of this State, residing at Canton, in Lewis county. His regiment became the 21st Missouri Infantry and did gallant service in Missouri so long as war was flagrant within her borders, an afterwards went South with the Union armies. General Moore greatly distinguished himself at the sanguinary battle of Shiloh where he served under Prentiss, under whose orders he, with his gallant regiment, met, and for a time checked the impetuous attack of the Confederate forces under Hardee. While gallantly leading his men in the fierce struggle, which has become historic, he fell, severely wounded, and was carried from the field to suffer the amputation of a leg. His own report of his part in the engagement is brief and characteristically modest, thus illustrating the fact that courage and modesty are qualities often combined in the same person; but his superior officers speak in high praises of his gallantry and skill. General Prentiss says: "Col. David Moore is entitled to special mention." And Col. Quinn, of the 12th Michigan, who that day commanded the 6th Division, says: "It is no more than just that favorable mention should be made of Col. Moore, of the 21st Missouri, who fell badly wounded while bravely leading his men on, early in the day." Having lost his leg in the battle, it might have been expected that he would retire from active service. But not so. After he had recovered and obtained an artificial limb, he raised the 51st Missouri Regiment and was for some time in command of the post of St. Louis, and first Sub-division of the State. He took an active part in subsequent campaigns in the South, commanding for a time the 1st Brigade, 3d Division, and afterwards the 3d Division, 16th Army Corps under General A. J. Smith. He was three times wounded and had two horses killed under him. It is not too much to say that this maimed and battle-scarred veteran deserves to be honored by the people of the entire Union, and especially by those of this State. He had served in the Mexican war as captain of the 3d Ohio regiment under Col. Samuel R. Curtis, Capt. James M. Love, now judge of the United States District Court in Iowa, commanding a company in the same regiment.
This sketch of the battle of Athens, and of the Union commander in that fight, is, I am well aware, exceedingly imperfect. It is, however, submitted for what it is worth, and hope is expressed that some one better qualified and having the details and placing upon record a more complete account of the engagement.
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Missouri Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
McCrary, G.W. 1892. THE BATTLE OF ATHENS, War Papers and Personal Reminiscences, 1861-1865, Read Before the Commandery of the State of Missouri, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Becktold & Co., St. Louis, Missouri. pp.169-176.
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