Iowa History Project
Making of Iowa
The Battle of Athens
Really, the so-called battle of Athens was but a skirmish, yet a number of lives were lost.
In the State of Missouri both Union recruits and Confederate recruits were being enlisted, for the Missourians were pretty well divided on the questions of the war. "Sesesh" was the popular name for the Confederates, because they favored secession, or the withdrawal from teh Union by the Southern States.
On account of both parties in the war having adherents in good numbers in Missouri, collisions between armed bodies of men were frequent.
About twenty miles northwest of Keokuk, on the right bank of the Des Moines River, in Clarke County, Missouri, is the town of Athens. Here, in July and August, 1861, was Colonel David Moore with about five hundred volunteers - mostly the First Northeast Missouri Regiment of Volunteer Home Guards.
The "Sesesh" had quarters at the town of Cahoka, about ten miles south of Athens. A number of skirmishes had occurred between recruiting details, and between detachments enlisted on the two sides. Home guards had been formed on either side of the boundary line between Iowa and Missouri.
August 1 thirty-five tons of provisions were sent to Athens on the Des Moines Valley Railroad, and at the same time a quantity of muskets and ammunition. The Confederates heard of this, and determined to attack Athens and capture the supplies. August 2 messengers arrived at Athens, bringing news of the plans of the "Sesesh," and Sunday evening, August 4, another messenger came with word that the onslaught was to be made the next day.
Colonel Moore prepared to give the enemy a warm reception. At the same time much excitement was occasioned in Iowa, for if Athens was taken, the Confederates might cross the river and pillage the country. The report got abroad that the Confederates were determined to attack and sack Keokuk itself.
In Farmington, Keokuk, and the other towns in Lee and Van Buren Counties, there was scurrying to and fro, to be ready to repel invasion.
Opposite Athens is Croton, Iowa. Here quite a throng assembled to watch operations. The bluff on the Iowa side of the Des Moines furnished a fine amphitheater.
The "Sesesh" were under the command of Martin E. Green. As most of the soldiers on either side were Missourians, and recruited from northern Missouri, families were divided; brother was arrayed against brother, father against son. Under Colonel Green was Captain Moore, the son of Colonel Moore of the Union volunteers. While the Confederates were on the march an officer remarked, in the hearing of Captain Moore:
"Oh,we'll take Athens easy enough. Old Moore won't fight."
"Don't you fool yourself," spoke up the son. "I know dad, and he'll give you all the fighting you want."
He did, too.
Colonel Green planted two cannon on the bluff, behind Athens, and at 5:30 o'clock on the morning of August 5 these opened fire, while the infantry attacked the Moore forces. The cannon balls flew too high. Instead of hitting the enemy, they passed over the heads of the Union soldiers, crossed the river, and struck the Croton bluff. The women and children here scattered, and hid in the ravines.
The greater part of the fighting took place in the cornfields around Athens. Under Colonel Moore were forty sharpshooters from Farmington. At the depot in Croton a body of Croton Home Guards and Keokuk volunteers had been stationed. During the battle these troops were marched into a sugar camp on the river bank; from this they fired across the river into the Confederates in a cornfield, and inflicted considerable loss.
Colonel Green had promised his men:
"We breakfast in Athens, dine in Croton, and sup in Farmington."
But they didn't, for in an hour and a half they were defeated and retreating. The Union troops pursued them a short distance, and then returned to Athens. The Confederate sympathizers in Athens had prepared to welcome Colonel Green's command. Chickens had been roasted, and pies and cakes baked. These with other goodies had been laid away in the cellars until the victory had been won.
But Colonel Green's me did not stay to taste these delicacies. Instead, the Northeast Missouri Regiment of Volunteer Home Guards, the Farmington sharpshooters, the Croton Home Guards and the doughty Keokuk volunteers fell to and celebrated at the expense of the unlucky "Sesesh" women. Colonel Green and force were heading in the wrong direction.
It is said the Union loss in the battle of Athens was four killed; three wounded badly; twenty wounded slightly Confederate loss much more.
However, figures in different accounts differ greatly.
Colonel Moore captured thirty horses, and the cannon left behind in the bushes.
While the struggle was in progress a number of frightened and wounded Unionists fled across the river. Some of these were so demoralized that they cried to all they met:
"Look out, the rebels are coming! The rebels are coming!"
A few ran clear to Keokuk and Montrose, spreading the tidings that Colonel Moore had been defeated, and that the Confederates were right at their heels.
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