Monday, July 10, 2017

Iowa border warfare & the summer of 1861 (Part 3)

Lucas County Border Brigade volunteers may (or may not) have responded to alarms surrounding the Aug. 5, 1861, Battle of Athens. During the battle, a secessionist cannon ball was shot through the Thome-Benning House (above) and splashed into the Des Moines River beyond. I took this photo during 2003.

This is the third in a series of posts about Iowa's Southern Border Brigade and the parts at least four Lucas Countyans played in it during 1861, first year of the Civil War. They were Lt. Col. John Edwards, charged with organizing the brigade, and Robert McCormick, Wilson King Larimer and Joseph Mitchell, who served in it.


The activity of the Border Brigade can be divided into two periods --- one informal but filled with excitement and activity as alarms and rumors of secessionist threats swept the border counties between May and October of 1861; the other, commencing during September of 1862, when the brigade was organized formally.

Lucas Countyans, including McCormick, Larimer and Mitchell, were involved only in that first period and saw little if any action thereafter. Mitchell, in fact, died on Nov. 14, 1861, at the age of 67.

While it is very likely that other Lucas Countyans served in the brigade, records from that first year are scarce.

It needs to be remembered, too, that as Lt. Col. Edwards was organizing the brigade, others were recruiting men for the first regular military unit to march out of Chariton in response to President Abraham Lincoln's and Gov. Samuel Kirkwood's calls to arms. That unit, Company B, also known as the Lucas County Guards, marched east from Chariton on July 11, 1861, and was mustered into the 6th Iowa Volunteer Infantry at Burlington later in the summer. You can read about the departure ceremony here.

By the time of the brigade's formal organization during the fall of 1862, the border threat had for the most part passed, although bands of guerrillas continued to operate in northern Missouri. Union forces had been firmly in control of northern Missouri since November of 1861.


As soon as Gov. Kirkwood commissioned Chariton attorney, newspaper publisher and legislator John Edwards, as well as Bloomfield's Cyrus Bussey, to organize Iowa's border defense, they set about recruiting companies of men. Most of these companies were in border counties, including Wayne --- Lucas County's immediate neighbor to the south.

While it is entirely possible that McCormick, Larimer and Mitchell were members of a separate Lucas County company --- inspired by their neighbor and friend John Edwards --- there is no record of it. On the other hand, there are few formal records of any of the volunteer companies operating during those first months of brigade activity.

Membership was open to any able-bodied man regardless of age who owned a gun, a horse and a saddle and could climb aboard and ride in response to an alarm. No equipment, arms or uniforms were issued. Once gathered, a company elected its own officers --- but none were commissioned by the state. Units drilled locally.

We know that Edwards led three expeditions that most likely included Lucas County men to and beyond Iowa's southern border during that summer of 1861, but know for sure only that McCormick, Mitchell and most likely Larimer, too, were involved in the final one --- to St. Joseph, Missouri --- during August.


There was no shortage of opportunities to ride that long-ago summer, although the threat immediately south of Lucas and Wayne counties was minimal. Mercer and Putnam counties, Missouri, were among that state's Union strongholds.

But on May 23, 1861, for example, a messenger arrived in Clarinda with the news that secessionists were gathering near the state line south of Amity (now College Springs) and planned to invade and burn the village. The Clarinda Home Guards marched to the aid of the Amity Border Guards and were joined by the Harlan Blues and the Braddyville Guards. This turned out to be a false alarm, however, and everyone returned home without incident.

Late in the afternoon of July 5, an excited messenger arrived in Bedford with the news that Maryville, Missouri, was about to be attacked by secessionists. Bedford guards crossed the state line during the night. They were joined at Maryville by some 250 guards from Page County and hundreds more from elsewhere in southern Iowa. Col. Edwards estimated that a total of 1,500 Border Brigade volunteers were involved. Most likely some Lucas County men were involved in this expedition.

That show of force reportedly caused the Maryville-area secessionists to rethink their planned attack, but just to make sure, the Iowa guards captured a few southern sympathizers and forced them to cheer for the Union before heading home to Iowa.

Later on in July, home guards rushed across the state line to Gentryville, Missouri, where secessionists were said to be assembling. Again, reportedly because of this show of Iowa force, the secessionists promised to behave themselves.

The view from Athens, Missouri, across the Des Moines  River toward Croton, Iowa.

On Aug. 5, 1861, some 2,000 secessionist Missouri State Guardsmen attacked the Des Moines River town of Athens, Missouri, just across the river south of Croton, Iowa, hoping to capture it from the 330 Unionist Missouri Home Guard troops then occupying it. This minor, although legendary, battle was the most northerly Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi.

The Athens Home Guard commander, Col. David Moore, had called for reinforcements in the days before the attack and border brigade troops from across southern Iowa responded, but did not reach Lee County in time to be of much assistance.

Moore's troops, although outnumbered, were much better armed and organized than the secessionist attackers and drove them off. The defeat, although the battle was small, broke the back of secessionist resistance to the Union cause in northeast Missouri. Border Brigade troops, who missed the battle, did have an opportunity to give chase to the fleeing rebels.

During mid-August, secessionist guerrillas seized St. Joseph, Missouri, after the federal troops that had been occupying what then was the most westerly city in the United States connected by rail to the East were redeployed as battles broke out elsewhere. The guerrillas occupied and plundered the city for a few weeks until driven out by regular troops backed by a force of some 1,200 Iowa Border Brigade troops, led by Lt. Col. Edwards. By mid-September, St. Joe was back in Union hands and under martial law.

At least some of the Iowa troops rode Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad cars as far east as Chillicothe, Missouri, before heading north to their homes in southern Iowa.

Many years later, just after John Edwards had died at his final home in Washington, D.C., The Chariton Herald published a brief tribute to him in its edition of April 19, 1894. The writer recalled that  during his year as Border Brigade commander, Edwards "organized three expeditions to the border, in the last of which, under the command of General Pope, they entered Missouri as far as St. Joe, thence east to Chillicothe. Uncle Joseph Mitchell and Dr. Robert McCormick, both over 60 years old at the time, were among those comprising the expedition."


Border excitement subsided after the St. Joseph expedition and there's no indication that Border Brigade troops had much to do other than drill and remain prepared during the months that followed.

John Edwards' organizing partner, Lt. Col. Cyrus Bussey, of Bloomfield, was promoted to full colonel during September of 1861, placed in command of the 3rd Iowa Volunteer Cavalry and established a distinguished record for himself as the war accelerated. Promoted to brigadier general during 1864, he was breveted major general at war's end.

Edwards was commissioned colonel and placed in command of the 18th Iowa Volunteer Infantry on Aug. 8, 1862, and established a distinguished record for himself, too. He was breveted brigadier general when the war ended, then entered civilian government service.

Iowa's Border Brigade was organized formally during September of 1862, one company for each of Iowa's Missouri border counties, but I've found the names of no Lucas Countyans on any of their rosters.

1 comment:

Steve Hanken said...

Colonel Moore went on to lose a leg early in the war, but was so tough he had his saddle modified so he could take charge of his men for the duration of the war and stay in the saddle with only one leg. He survived the war and died in the 1890's