In August 1861, Athens, Missouri was a bustling river town in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, perched just across the Des Moines River from the Iowa border. With over 500 townspeople, roughly fifty businesses, factories, a meat-packing plant, and numerous churches and schools, the village of Athens was a quintessential mid-nineteenth-century frontier community that had benefitted greatly from the effects of the Market Revolution. However, this flourishing mercantile river town would be soon engulfed in the violence of the Civil War.
In late July 1861, Col. David Moore of the 1st Northeastern Missouri Home Guard occupied Athens, largely due to an abundance of foodstuffs and supplies, access to the river, and its proximity to friendly territory in Iowa. Though Col. Moore was on high alert at the possibility of an imminent attack by Col. Martin E. Green’s Missouri State Guard by August 4, he permitted about 150 of his men to go home briefly on leave. His Home Guards were simply citizen soldiers. Though Col. Moore requested reinforcements from Iowa, the Hawkeye troops were unwilling to cross the border. Moore knew he was in trouble if enemy troops attacked.
At the same time on the evening of August 4, Col. Green and his 3,000 Missouri State Guardsmen were less than ten miles away from Athens. Aware that his force heavily outnumbered Moore’s Home Guard, Green wanted to strike while the iron was hot. Before dawn on August 5, the Missouri State Guard advanced toward Athens.
At 5:00 am, shots were heard in Athens near Col. Moore’s picket line. Soon, the Federal pickets alerted the Home Guards in town of the State Guard attack. Though he had just over 300 men and no artillery pieces, Col. Moore was still determined to fight – even if it meant fighting an army nearly seven times its size and armed with two operating field pieces. The Union volunteers, though, were much better equipped in terms of long arms. While the State Guard had squirrel rifles, shotguns, and outdated smoothbores, Moore’s troops were armed with rifled-muskets and rifle-muskets. Additionally, his men had some training, though minimal.
After they had forced Moore’s pickets back, Col. Martin Green’s State Guardsmen attempted to surround the Home Guards on three sides (the other, being the river). Though Green’s troops were armed with three field guns under the command of James Kniesley, the artillery played no effective role in the battle. One of the guns, a hollowed log cannon, exploded after the first shot. Kniesley’s gun crews of the other two field guns had difficulty effectively aiming the weapon, most shots soaring over the town.
Though they heavily outnumbered Col. Moore’s force, the State Guard could not capitalize on their advantages. Some of the Home Guards successfully drove Missouri State Guard troops back, while others were forced to flee toward the river. By the time they reached a cornfield, the State Guard’s lines were beginning to splinter. Col. Moore spotted the faltering advance and ordered a bayonet charge against the advancing Rebels. Fixing bayonets, the Home Guards rushed the State Guard line, forcing their numerically superior enemy into a full retreat.
The Battle of Athens was one of the first land battles and even the northernmost battle fought west of the Mississippi River. Remarkably, Col. David Moore and his 300-man 1st Northeast Missouri Home Guards had driven back the Missouri State Guard with just 23 casualties. They successfully defended their positions at Athens and even captured over 30 State Guardsmen, approximately 450 fully-equipped horses, and hundreds of firearms. Even more so, they severely hurt secessionist efforts in northeastern Missouri.
The town of Athens struggled incredibly after the battle and the Civil War. Today, the town of Athens is no more, but what is left is preserved as part of Athens State Historic Site. Some of the homes and ruins of other structures are still left. The Thome-Benning house still bears the scars of the battle.
Perhaps most importantly, the Battle of Athens was the first combat experience for the men who fought there. Even though they lost this battle, Col. Martin Green and his State Guard learned invaluable lessons in combat. He would command Missouri troops at Lexington, Pea Ridge, Iuka, Corinth, and Vicksburg. During the Siege of Vicksburg, while peering over the Confederate earthworks, Col. Green was shot in the head and instantly killed.
Col. Moore and his Home Guards would be the nucleus of the 21st Missouri Infantry, a unit that would serve in Gen. Ulysses Grant’s resolute Army of the Tennessee. Their experiences at Athens no doubt forged their identity as soldiers, gave them confidence in combat, and also prepared them for the toughest battles in the West: Shiloh, Iuka, Corinth, and Vicksburg.
These men, both Federal and Confederate, were forged in fire at the Battle of Athens.