Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

The Pesky Sesesh

The Missouri Sesesh (SESH-eesh) were pesky.  In his History of Farmington, Richard Tharp mentions the coined word "Sesesh," which apparently was derived from the word secessionist.
The area on each side of the Iowa-Missouri border was a hotbed of controversy.  Confederate sympathizers who advocated slavery, clashed and locked horns with Union abolitionists who were determined to stamp out slavery and preserve the Union.
There were mixed feelings among those who leaned towards the southern cause.  Many were so angered by the aggressive northerners, that they favored and openly supported Missouri's withdrawal from the Union.  The label "Sesesh" emerged to distinguish these Confederates from the slave owners who preferred to stay in the Union, but the term soon spread to include all people living in the southern region.
Farmington was located about 1 1/2 miles above the Missouri border.  Only a few miles south, on the west bank of the Des Moines River, was the town of Athens (AYE-thins).  During the summer of 1861, Colonel David Moore of the Union Army was stationed there, with about 500 men.  He operated a training camp for new recruits.  Most of the surrounding countryside supported the south.
Croton was a small Iowa village across the river from Athens, with a depot on the Des Moines Valley Railroad.  When Missouri Confederates heard about a shipment of arms and ammunition being sent to Croton for Colonel Moore, they decided to attack Athens to capture the supplies.
Colonel Moore knew of the planned attack and wisely prepared, as Athens needed to be protected.  If the Sesesh were successful in raiding and capturing Athens, there would be pillage of all villages from Keokuk to Farmington, and perhaps beyond.
A legendary skirmish resulted.  Legends are stories based on an element of truth.  They are either embellished or exaggerated beyond the facts, or cannot be proven because the facts are missing.  This was the northernmost battle of the Civil War, yet there is no official record of the event.
Colonel Green of the Confederates divided his forces and attacked from all directions, but the Union army was patiently waiting for him and scattered the confused Sesesh with a barrage of cannon fire.  The southerners retreated in panic and disarray.
Fortified with about 40 Farmington sharpshooters, the Croton Home Guards and Keokuk volunteers, Colonel Moore hardly had to use his young recruit fighters.  The union took their stand and fired into the Confederates inflicting heavy losses.
Union forces captured 30 horses and the cannons the Confederates left behind when the fled.  Officially, 2 Union men were killed in the incident and 15 were wounded.  Southern tolls are unofficial, but death estimates ran as high as fifty-one.
The campaign took place with irregular forces of citizenry, many of whom were not yet officially inducted into the Army.  Colonel Moore issued a full, detailed report of the battle to Colonel Worthington in Keokuk but the report was lost or accidentally destroyed, as it has never surfaced.  Thus, there is no "official" record of the battle.
In spite of a lack of Army records, The Chicago Tribune, Quincy Herald, Missouri Democrat and Keokuk's Daily Gate City carried details of the campaign with casualty reports, all within a few days of the event.  Thus the legendary skirmish has been kept alive and identified as part of the Civil War.
The Sesesh were squelched on that day, and eventually were totally subdued when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865.  I wrote about this historical episode and Iowa's involvement in the war, in my book, Squelching the Sesesh, published in 2007.

 - -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick