While looking for something else a few days ago I came across a story in a 1912 edition of the Keokuk Daily Gate City that explained how Union forces won the northernmost battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. The story involves a mad ride through the countryside to warn of impending attack and a small town’s action against a stronger enemy. Unlike the story that turned Paul Revere’s truncated ride into an epic apocryphal poem, this story is a first-hand account of a wild adventure that changed history west of the Mississippi River.
Athens, Missouri (It’s pronounced AY-thens there) was a town of about fifty about the time of the Civil War, backed up against the Des Moines River that forms the notch in our border in the far northeast corner of the state. It’s pretty much a ghost town now, with a state historic site nearby commemorating the Battle of Athens. Athens doesn’t even show up on the maps anymore (the one above is from Google). Go up to the northeast corner of the notch, just east of Highway 81 about seven miles (as the crow flies) southeast of Farmington, Iowa, where the DesMoines River forms the state boundary and imagine a dot there and you’ll pretty much know where Athens was.
About 2,000 Confederates under Colonel Martin Green tried to capture Athens from the Home Guard Troops under Col. David Moore who occupied the town. Normally he would have had 500 men but he was down to about 330 because some of his troops had been allowed to go to their homes in the area. Green surrounded the town on three sides and attacked on August 5, 1861.
But Moore’s men turned out to be better armed, with rifled muskets and bayonets while Green’s force was poorly equipped and was mostly untrained recruits. When the Confederate attack wavered in the face of better-than-expected defenses, Moore led a bayonet counter-attack that forced the Rebels to flee, never again to threaten an invasion Iowa.
A key part of the story is how the Union forces came to be better armed. And that is where the seldom-related (for many years, apparently) story of General Cyrus Bussey, then a cavalry Lieutenant-Colonel of the Iowa Home Guard begins. He told it to Phillip Dolan of the New York World and it was reprinted in the Keokuk newspaper on January 1, 1912.
Listen my friends and you shall hear of the daring ride of Cyrus Bussey, and how it changed Civil War history in northeast Missouri and in Iowa.
“Because I was a Democratic member of the Iowa State Senate and supported the measure to appropriate $800,000 to raise troops in Iowa for the preservation of the Union, Governor Kirkwood named me his aide-de-camp on his staff, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel of Cavalry. That was May, 1861. I was twenty-eight years old with no military education or training.
“I lived in Bloomfield, twelve miles from the Missouri border. My messenger reported to me that the Confederal Gen. Martin Green was organizing a brigade on the border to invade Iowa. I applied to Governor Kirkwood for arms but he had none. The Battle of Bull Run had given the southerners big encouragement and there was great enlistment in northern Missouri for the Confederate army.
“I went to General Fremont in St. Louis and asked for arms. He had none. I said, ‘Give me 100,000 rounds of ammunition.
“What will you do with ammunition without guns?”
“I replied ‘I don’t know but I’ll feel better if I have ammunition.’
“He gave me 50,000 rounds and right away it was loaded on a steamboat and sent up the Mississippi River to Keokuk, Iowa.
“The next night about midnight my messenger came to my house in Bloomfield and reported that Gen. Green was shoeing his horses and would start the invasion of Iowa within thirty-six hours with 1,500 cavalry.
“I went at once to a livery stable and asked for a horse and buggy. At 4 o’clock in the morning they brought to my house a rig —a two-wheeled sulky—and in the shafts was a mustang and three men were holding him, for he was really a wild horse just taken from the herd. It was the only horse they could give me.
“I got up in the seat, took the reins, the men let go and the mustang plunged off. Away I went behind that wild horse toward Keokuk, forty miles to the eastward. For fourteen miles he tore over the road, over the hills, up and down and through streams with never a let up; a hundred escapes from imminent wreck we had.
“We approached the home of Mr. Bloom, a friend of mine. Here the road led down to a ravine and Mr. Bloom’s cattle filled the road, lying down. Straight down the road, galloped the horse, straight at the herd of cattle. One wheel struck a cow, the shock took the horse clean off his feet, threw him into the air and down he landed on his back in a ditch with the sulky on top of him. I was flung twenty feet.
“But good fortune was with me. The sulky was not broken, and better still, the horse was still full of life and his legs uninjured. Swiftly, Mr. Bloom and his hired man helped me to hitch up again, and away we went, the horse wilder than ever. At the Pittsburgh ford he plunged through the Des Moines River, half a mile wide, and a mile and a half further, came to the town of Keosauqua. Here I tried to stop him but he would not stop. I guided him around the square in the center of the town. Round and round he raced three times, and then a crowd of the town’s people stopped him and I got out. I left him there for good. I took the train for Keokuk and reached that place.
“I notified the authorities of Keokuk to barricade their streets against the coming of Martin Green. One of the railroad officials came to me with a bill of lading showing 1,000 guns in transit, shipped by the war department to Col. Grenville M. Dodge at Council Bluffs, for the regiment he was raising there and these guns had just arrived in Keokuk and were about to go out on the west bound train. I felt that Providence was with me. I seized the guns and the train.
“I found the ammunition which General Fremont had sent, and by more wonderful good fortune, the cartridges were exactly right for the caliber of the guns.
“Immediately I gave 100 of the guns to Gen. Belknap, afterwards secretary of war, and 100 to H. J. Sample. I got on the train with 800 guns. At Athens, Mo., Col. David Moore was in camp with 300 loyal Missourians armed with a few shotguns. I gave him 200 rifles. A few miles further up, I left 100 guns with Capt. O. H. P. Scott. At Keosauqua I left 200 guns. The other 300 guns I took to Ottumwa, hired a wagon, and hauled them to Bloomfield, my home, where three companies were promptly raised, and I immediately started back to Keokuk.
“On the way, I received a message from Col. Moore telling me Green’s forces were advancing on him and a battle was momentarily expected. A special train brought a detachment to his aid.
“Moore had barricaded the streets of Athens. Green attacked him but the resistance was so strong that Green retired. For two days my Home Guard continued to arrive at Athens. Then Col. Moore, in command, followed the rebels into Missouri. They never came back to Iowa.
“Having seized the guns without warrant—ordinarily a great offense—I started to get my action legalized. Gen. Fremont said to me, ‘You have rendered a very important service. You have shown fitness for command. Next day he appointed me Colonel and authorized me to raise a regiment of cavalry. In ten days I had 1,100 men in camp, mustered in as the Third Iowa Cavalry.
“But I have never ceased to wonder what would have happened if that wild mustang had not landed on his back in the soft ditch and thus saved his legs to carry me on.”
And that’s how Moore’s men at Athens became better armed than the much larger force of Confederates and how a little battle in a now-gone northeast Missouri town stopped a Confederate invasion of Iowa.
The battle was the beginning of a distinguished military and civilian life for Bussey. He was Grant’s chief of cavalry at Vicksburg and commanded Sherman’s advance guard at Jackson Mississippi. He became a wartime Major-General in 1865. For a short time after the war he was a commission merchant in St. Louis and New Orleans before becoming a lawyer. During the Harrison administration (1889-1893) he was Assistant Secretary of the Interior. At the time of the interview he was described as “a spare, medium-size man, showing few marks of his long life of great activity, he is mentally keen and keeps the dry humor of an Iowa pioneer.”
He died in 1915 at the age of 81. He and his wife are buried in Arlington National Cemetery under an imposing monument.
The Paul Revere of the west, he was—except that, unlike Revere, he was propelled by a wild mustang and he completed his mission. And he changed the history of the Civil War west of the Mississippi.
(The picture is from History of Iowa from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (1903)