Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Battle of Athens

The Thorne-Benning House is the most interesting building left at Athens. Perched at the edge of a bluff above the Des Moines River, it was home to the Athens mill owner and his family. During the battle an artillery shell passed through the house and landed in the river --- and evidence of that still is visible. I took this series of photos during the fall of 2003, by the way.

To call the Battle of Athens a battle is stretching it a little when you consider the scale and deadliness of most confrontations between Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. But it was the closest Iowa came to fighting on its own territory during that great conflict and therefore worth remembering later this year --- on Aug. 5, its 150th anniversary.

Even if the only damage sustained in the Hawkeye state was inflicted by an artillery shell that sailed across the Des Moines River from tiny Athens, Missouri, and struck the depot in equally tiny Croton, Iowa.

The other distinction accorded the border skirmish results from the fact it was, however minor, the most northerly of Civil War battles fought west of the Mississippi.

This is the the Thorne-Benning house from the northeast. Look down the bluff immediately behind the house and you can see remains of the Thorne Mill; across the river, Croton.

The battle is commemorated in a beautiful Missouri DNR park along the south shore of the Des Moines southeast of Farmington, Iowa, called the Battle of Athens State Historic Site. If you want to get there and are headed east across far southern Iowa on Highway 2, turn south on Highway No. 81 just before you cross the river bridge into Farmington, continue south until you see Missouri State Highway CC on your left, then wander around in an easterly direction on that road until you get to Athens. There’s not much left by now, but what is there is worth a visit.

The Townsend-Gray house (above) and the McKee house (below) are other original Athens buildings that survived and that now are part of the Battle of Athens Historic Site.

The battle grew out of the conflicted nature of Missouri in regard to secession. Missouri was older than Iowa --- and a slave state. Northern Missouri had been settled by a mixed population that became seriously divided over the issue of slavery.

Iowa had been founded as a free state and one of the first acts of Iowa’s “activist” Supreme Court, in July of 1839 during territorial days, was to establish the precedent that any slave who set foot on Iowa soil was automatically free (In Re the Matter of Ralph). Although there certainly was an active Copperhead movement in eastern and southern Iowa, there never was any doubt that Iowa was firmly Union.

By the summer of 1861, Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, commander of the Army of the West, had Missouri’s secessionist State Guard on the run in the southwest part of the state (he became the first Union general killed in the Civil War --- on Aug. 10, 1861, during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek).

In northeast Missouri, Union Home Guard units were organizing and secessionist State Guard units were attempting to reorganize, resulting in armed skirmishes.

Battle of Athens fatalities may (or may not) be buried in the Athens Cemetery, located alont the bluff just east of the historic site.

By early August, Union Home Guard Col. David Moore’s regiment had fallen back to Athens in large part because reinforcements and supplies were readily available just across the river in Iowa. On the day of the battle his force numbered about 330.

Col. Martin Green’s secessionist State Guard units, totaling about 2,000 men, advanced against the town with numerical advantage but poorly armed and poorly trained. Moore’s regiment, by contrast, had recently received several hundred rifled Springfield muskets.
The Union forces had no artillery, but the secessionsts’ three pieces --- including a hollowed log that exploded on first attempt to fire it --- proved to be wildly ineffective.

Eventually, Moore’s outnumbered but better trained and better armed Union troops chased the secessionists off --- and captured a substantial number of horses and hundreds of arms in the process. The defeat at Athens and subsequent pursuit by Union troops defused State Guard efforts in northeast Missouri.

Col. Moore reported three Union soldiers killed at Athens and 20 wounded. State Guard losses were never accurately tallied.

And that’s about all there was to it. In the years after the war Athens faded. Rail transport eliminated Des Moines River transport and the little town, once a port of entry to northeast Missouri, became redundant. Today only a few buildings remain, three of them part of the historic site.

1 comment:

Ed said...

I haven't visited the Thorne-Benning House in over twenty-five years...probably closer to thirty. I need to correct that problem.