Forged in Fire – The Battle of Athens, Missouri, Part I

By the early summer of 1861, Missourians across the state plunged into war in response to the Camp Jackson Affair and its polarizing aftermath. Devoted Unionists were called to arms by Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon to join the Home Guards and Federal volunteer units, while secessionists flocked to the new state defense force, the Missouri State Guard. By mid-July, Lyon’s Army of the West was encamped at the southwestern Missouri town of Springfield, with Major General Sterling Price’s State Guard rendezvousing with additional Confederate volunteers near the Indian Territory border. A major clash between the two armies grew imminent.

Brigadier General Martin Green is seen here in his Confederate brigadier general’s uniform. At the time of the Battle of Athens, Green was a colonel in command of Missouri State Guard troops. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

In northeastern Missouri, tensions continued to grow amongst the region’s divided population. Unlike much of the nation, northeastern Missouri was essentially a borderland – the intersection of northerners, southerners, and westerners. This region was economically and culturally influenced by its neighboring northern states of Illinois and Iowa, while also being home to nearly half of Missouri’s overall enslaved population. Nearly 310,000 people called northeastern Missouri home in 1860.[1] Additionally, this was reflected in their voting record from the 1860 election. For president, northeastern Missourians were largely split between Constitutional Unionist John Bell with over 18,000 votes and Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas with nearly 17,000.[2] Four counties in the region – Lewis, Marion, Ralls, and Monroe – were known to be sympathetic to the secessionist movement in Missouri. Being that borderland, however, it caused the region to be a hotbed of recruitment for the Missouri State Guard, Home Guards, and the Federal volunteer units.

A Virginia native and Lewis County Judge, Martin E. Green was one of the region’s secessionist leaders. His own brother, James Green, had just left office as one of Missouri’s two U.S. Senators. Martin Green had tremendous influence in northeastern Missouri, leading him to spearhead the recruitment efforts for the State Guard from his headquarters at Monticello in Lewis County.

Colonel David Moore in his Federal officer’s uniform. Courtesy of The 21st Missouri Regiment Infantry Veteran Volunteers: Historical Memoranda.

David Moore, a resident of the hamlet of Wrightsville in Clark County, a veteran of the Mexican War, and the son of Irish immigrants, was called upon by Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and his friend Colonel William Bishop to recruit loyal men in the area for pro-Union militia.[3]  The militias, known as the Home Guards, were organized by Lyon and Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr. to defend the homeland from pro-secessionist forces in the state. The Home Guards protected vital lines of communication and supply, prevented further recruitment of the State Guard, guarded arsenals and supply depots, and defended their communities from insurgency or Rebel attacks. Moore called upon “all who are willing to fight for their homes, their country and the flag of the glorious Union.”[4]

An Iowan from just across the border from Clark County described the formation of Moore’s First Northeast Missouri Home Guard as, “a measure voluntary; a sort of spontaneous rising and coming together of loyal men for the defense of themselves and the flag … 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.”  Ultimately, “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.”[5]

In July, Colonel Martin Green’s State Guard division gathered along the Fabius River, a tributary of the Mississippi River that meandered through northeastern Missouri. As Green’s men organized, trained, and recruited, Colonel David Moore and his 1st Northeast Missouri Home Guard set their eyes on stopping them. On July 21, the Federals struck Green’s cavalry near the town of Etna, where they were successful in forcing the secessionists out of the vicinity. Moore was able to fall back to the town of Athens, just across the Des Moines River from Iowa.

By the first day of August, Colonel Martin Green began his advance from the town of Edina toward Moore at Athens. With 2,000 State Guardsmen, Green was within a half day’s march from Moore’s 500-man Home Guard regiment by the 4th of August.  Meanwhile, at Athens, Moore was on high alert, issuing Model 1861 rifle-muskets to his green troops and requesting reinforcements from neighboring Iowa. Even though the Home Guards were anxiously awaiting an imminent attack, approximately 150 of Moore’s troops were given leave to visit home, leaving them drastically outnumbered. With overwhelming numbers, Green planned to attack at dawn on August 5.

To Be Continued…

Sources:

  1. Williams, Walter, A History of Northeastern Missouri, vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1913), 49-50.
  2. Ibid., 53.
  3. “A Directory of Towns, Villages, and Hamlets Past and Present of Clark County, Missouri,” Springfield-Greene County Library, accessed May 22, 2022, https://thelibrary.org/lochist/moser/clarkpl.html
  4. Starr, N.D. & T.W. Holman, The 21st Missouri Regiment Infantry Veteran Volunteers (Fort Madison, IA: Roberts & Roberts, 1899), ebook.
  5. George W. McCrary, 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) 169-176.
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5 Responses to Forged in Fire – The Battle of Athens, Missouri, Part I

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Upon scrutiny of appropriate maps, it is surprising to realize Civil War land action, not involving Native Americans, took place North of Keokuk Iowa… but such was in keeping with the unconventional nature of “hard man” of Missouri, David Moore. Eventually teamed with Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss in prosecution of counterinsurgency operations (that successfully drove ALL organized Rebel forces south of the Missouri River by February 1862) Moore and his unit (now identified as 21st Missouri Volunteer Infantry) continued to serve under Prentiss at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee… Moore and his Regiment becoming crucial elements effecting delay of the Confederate juggernaut at Battle of Shiloh.
    Thank you, Kristen M. Trout, for introducing the earliest Civil War service of this Union hero.

    • Kristen M. Trout says:

      Thanks, Mike! I always appreciate your insightful comments. Stay tuned for Part II of this post, which will most definitely discuss the 21st Missouri!

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  4. KIP LINDBERG says:

    Moore’s men were lucky enough to receive rifke-miskets, but they were the earlier 1855 models, as the simplified M1861 version had just gone into production the previous month at the Springfield armory in Massachusetts.

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