Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick



As day was breaking on the morning of August 5, 1861 Athens, MO citizens began to hear cannon, musket and sudden rifle fire! Guerilla warfare had spontaneously broken out between Union men and Southern sympathizers. The bloody little campaign was termed a decisive battle of the Civil War, yet is relatively unknown to historians. The Archives of the War Dept. has no documents supporting the Athens battle, and Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies contains only one reference to the skirmish in the entire chronology of the war in Missouri.

This is due in part to the fact that this battle and the entire conducted campaign took place between irregular forces of citizenry, many of whom were not inducted into military service--at least according to usual procedures. If regular musters were kept or maintained, they were lost or destroyed. Men who served often had to wait two years for Congress to appropriate wages for them, and many never received their payment.

Commanded by Col. David Moore, Union forces established a recruiting and training camp twenty miles west of Keokuk at Athens, MO. Although it was still early in the war, Canton and Hannibal, MO were already occupied by Worthington’s Union army. Athens was within reach of aid from Col. Worthington’s Iowa troops, as he made Keokuk his headquarters. Supplies and ammunitions were available by railway across the river at Croton, Iowa, which is a short distance downstream from Farmington.

At Edina in Knox County, Elias V. Wilson organized a company of 108 men and other companies joined him totaling about 500 men. These became part of Martin Green’s Border Guards who were mostly mustered without records. Hundreds fought with no record of their service, with “no documents of history” as historians have noted.

A peace delegation visited Moore’s quarters at Athens and attempted to persuade him into disbanding his group, but Moore retaliated, “If Mart Green wants to avoid bloodshed, he’d better keep his men beyond the range of my guns!”

Green gathered more recruits, left Edina and camped along the Fabius River east of Memphis, hoping to scare Moore into retreating across the river. When this plan failed, Green moved closer, where he held a council of war session over a campfire along the Fox River. Here he outlined his seemingly foolproof plan to drive Moore back into Iowa, whence he would descend upon Col. Woodward’s forces at Canton!

Camp broke early and the army headed for Athens, swooping down onto the sleeping community from three directions. Dull and Kimbrough headed the Clark and Lewis County volunteers and came down the river to Athens; Schacklett’s Scotland County crew pressed north through the tall cornfields, while the main body of Green’s troops struck from the west. However, Green was in for a surprise!

“Keokuk Rifles and Rangers” encamped at Croton joined in the melee firing from across the river until all of their ammunition was depleted. Flying missiles wrecked the railroad station. Rebel prisoners were rounded up and taken to Croton, and were detained in the schoolhouse.

Most of the men killed were Southerners, a real surprise to Green, who expected an easy victory. His army stampeded as the irregulars were severely mowed down and defeated. Instead of driving Moore back into Iowa, the Confederates left Athens as fast as Texas cattle stampeding ahead of a raging prairie fire, heading in the general direction of Edina. They left their belongings behind, including rifles and some of their horses.

Thus a small force of Union militia under Col. David Moore sadly defeated the secessionist Border Guards of Col. Martin Green at Athens, MO on the Des Moines River. The rebels retreated from the border and within six weeks were driven out of northeast Missouri.

Citizens were so frightened in the wake of war that morning, that many breakfasts remained untouched on the table as they made a mad dash across the river to Iowa and safety. Waves of citizens from Missouri crossed the river within hours, followed by hundreds of retreating Confederates, who had volunteered to fight but were now giving up their cause.

Col. Moore made a full report of the Battle of Athens and gave it to Col. W. H. Worthington, in command of the 5th Regiment, Iowa Volunteers at Keokuk. But the document has never been found. In spite of no official archives, the Chicago Tribune, Missouri Democrat, and Quincy Harold carried detailed reports of the battle, as did Keokuk’s Daily Gate City, which also published casualty reports a few days later.

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