|Featured in the Spring 2008 issue of Hallowed Ground,
magazine of the Civil War Preservation Trust
Named “Best Local/Regional History of 2008” by Civil War Books and Authors
By Jonathan K. Cooper-Wiele
It had it all: Cemetery Hill, the Cornfield, a cannonade, ignominious skedaddles, valorous stands, backs to a river, a numerically inferior force triumphing, neighbors firing upon neighbors, refugees, a bayonet charge, an arms differential, entrenching, casualties, death, bloated corpses, and the wonder and terror of volunteers “seeing the elephant.” Evoking such epic engagements as Shiloh, Antietam, or Gettysburg, these characteristics belong to the nearly unknown Trans-Mississippi Civil War Battle of Athens (pronounced “Aythens”), Missouri. Commencing around 5:30 a.m. on the sultry morning of August 5, 1861, in Clark County, in the far northeast corner of Missouri near the Iowa border, it was over in a couple of hours.
Long known as the “farthest north” battle of the Civil War (although Salineville, OH, and St. Albans, VT were, as historian Leslie Anders put it, nearer to the north pole) Athens was in fact the closest actual combat came to the state of Iowa. The town of Athens, a thriving market community with a population of about 800 in 1861, stood on a bluff above the Des Moines River in northeast Missouri. Across the river was the Iowa town of Croton, which was connected by rail with the important northern military hub of Keokuk, Iowa. In the early months of the Civil War, a regiment of pro-Union Home Guard militia under Colonel David Moore occupied Athens while it received military supplies at Croton. A pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard militia unit under Colonel Martin Green, itself in search of arms and ammunition, attacked Moore’s numerically inferior force on three sides. Better weapons and tactics decided the battle in the Home Guard’s favor. An opening artillery assault by the State Guard overshot the Home Guard position, one round passing through the front and out the back of the home of a prominent citizen (the famous “Cannonball House,” which is still standing) and destroying at least one building in Croton, which represents Iowa’s closest brush with the mayhem of battle.
The Battle of Athens secured northeast Missouri for the Union, although the distraction of Green’s attack and subsequent activity in the area probably contributed to Confederate victories in the Battles of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington. Many of the men of the 1st Northeast Missouri Home Guard went on to serve in the 21st Missouri Infantry Volunteers, of which their colonel David Moore became the commander.
Author Jonathan Cooper-Wiele’s mother grew up in Kahoka, Missouri, only 12 miles from what had once been the town of Athens. He visited the unmarked, overgrown area with his parents during the Civil War centennial and became instantly fascinated with the battle. Years later, when Athens had finally been preserved as a Missouri State Historic Site, and after discovering he had two ancestors who fought at the battle, Jonathan decided to write an article about it. He first contacted the Camp Pope Bookshop in early 1998, asking if I would be interested in publishing what had grown into a small book. Considering my own interest in the battle, I had always thought it could use a comprehensive study, as, although a few dedicated local historians had been promoting the battle for years, none had been written to date. But then the project got pushed onto the proverbial back burner. In 2005, while selling books at one of Athens’s triennial battle reenactments, I decided it was time to make a serious commitment to finishing the project.
The result is the first scholarly, in-depth study of the Battle of Athens. Using scores of contemporary and historical sources never before brought together in one book, author Jonathan Cooper-Wiele places a detailed narration of the battle against the backdrop of the historical events in Missouri and the rest of the nation that led to the Civil War. The maps are new, drawn by Athens Park Ranger Matt Kantola, making use of archaeological discoveries of the last 20 years. And most of the 55 photographs have never before been published. Skim Milk Yankees Fighting is a 168 page quality paperback, with 55 illustrations, three maps, notes, bibliography, index, and, published here for the first time ever, the reconstructed rosters of men sworn to the service of the United States in the 1st and 2nd Northeast Missouri Home Guard, as gathered in 1863 by the Hawkins Taylor Commission.
|About the author: Jonathan K. Cooper-Wiele, a descendant of two soldiers who fought in the Battle of Athens, teaches middle school in Boston, Massachsetts.|
“Expertly edited, meticulously researched, astutely analyzed, and persuasively argued, Skim Milk Yankees Fighting is a unique contribution to the military history literature of the Civil War.” Andrew Wagenhoffer, Civil War Books and Authors.
“Greatly have I appreciated the arrival of Jonathan Cooper-Wiele’s Skim Milk Yankees Fighting. The book deserves widespread notice, for it does a lot to give northeastern Missouri the credit and applause it is receiving for its role in the fight to preserve the Union. These pages, which analyze effectively the complexity of Missourians’ thought processes on the conflicting philosophies of the time, will be valuable in generations to come for everyone needing to understand the crises of that time.” Leslie Anders, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Central Missouri
“I found Cooper-Wiele’s Skim Milk Yankees Fighting an excellent blend of history and folklore on the Battle of Athens and the events leading up to it. The book is a must for students of the early war in northeastern Missouri. I highly recommend it.” Roger Boyd, Site Administrator, Battle of Athens State Historic Site
“This lively, well written and thoroughly researched account presents a fresh view of the battle and of the local rivalries and tensions that led backwoods Missourians to take up arms and face one another with deadly intent in a remote corner of the nation, far from the epicenters of disunion, where the great fratricidal blood letting had only barely begun.” James Denny, co-author with John Bradbury of The Civil War’s First Blood: Missouri 1854-1861.