[Skim Milk Yankees Fighting: The Battle of Athens, Missouri, August 5, 1861 by Jonathan K. Cooper-Wiele (The Camp Pope Bookshop, 2007) Softcover, 55 photographs, 3 maps, home guard roster1, notes, bibliography, index. Pages total/main: 168/80. ISBN 978-1-929919-12-3. $14.95]
Five days before the larger, headline-stealing Battle of Wilson's Creek was fought, Missouri State Guardsmen led by Martin Green attacked a smaller2 Northeast Missouri Home Guard force under David Moore in the streets of Athens, Missouri. While Green's command had the luxury of artillery support, Moore's men had a decided advantage in quality of small arms. Repulsing enemy probing attacks on both flanks, and aided by supporting rifle fire from Iowa infantry across the Des Moines River, the main body of the Home Guard drove the MSG from the field with a furious bayonet charge on their center.
Until now, no satisfactory account of the Battle of Athens has made its way into print. That's not to say the subject's been completely ignored. Previous investigators (most notably Ben F. Dixon and Patricia Mullenix) have collected and published source materials, and historian Leslie Anders contributed a nice synopsis of the battle for the journal Missouri Historical Review3. Room was left for an in-depth study, and happily for those of us endlessly fascinated with the Civil War in Missouri, author Jonathan Cooper-Wiele has stepped up to the plate nicely with his book Skim Milk Yankees Fighting.
Cooper-Wiele deserves a great deal of credit for his ability to construct a useful and coherent battle narrative from such a limited array of available source materials. On the other hand, the fact that the Home Guard viewpoint predominates will likely disappoint readers wishing to find a more detailed discussion of the role of the Missouri State Guard in the battle. It is unclear to this reviewer if this was by design or was dictated by the availability of sources4--it is certainly well known to researchers that MSG documentation is riddled with gaps. In addition to providing a fine description of the battle itself, the author's political history of Missouri from the antebellum period through the secession crisis helps place these later events within larger state and national contexts.
The explanatory notes deserve special mention. Expansive passages evaluating various source materials provide detailed insight into the author's thought processes for reconstructing events and analyzing the battle. Useful comparisons are drawn between Cooper-Wiele's interpretations and those of previous writers and historians. Perhaps to a greater degree than most, a careful review of the notes provided in this work is essential in piecing together a basic understanding of what occurred at Athens5.
Skim Milk Yankees Fighting is also heavily illustrated. Dozens of photographs (the majority published for the first time) of individuals, buildings, and landscapes were included. Based on current archaeological survey work, the maps6 are excellent, and, in combination with the modern and period photographs, very useful in visualizing the battlefield.
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. 'Original research' is probably a label too carelessly bandied about by commentators, but in this case, the approbation is fully deserved. Jonathan Cooper-Wiele's book is one of those small gems of Civil War publishing; likely to be overlooked by the generalist, but treasured by dedicated readers and researchers of the conflict in Missouri.
1 - Roster compiles members of the 1st and 2nd Northeast Missouri Home Guard, a task undertaken by the 1863 Hawkins Taylor Commission.
2 - For both sides, a wide range of strength numbers were reported by the various sources. Numbers present vs. engaged, and to what degree the MSG outnumbered the Home Guards, remain unsettled issues.
3 - Anders, Leslie. "‘Farthest North:’ The Historian and the Battle of Athens" (Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 69 (Jan 1975), pgs. 147-168.
4 - Some interesting State Guard insights can be found in the endnotes.
5 - The question of what to include in the notes vs. the main text certainly has no correct answer, but [and I have to admit my own bias here] I couldn't help but wonder if the reader would have been better served by incorporating more of the material from the endnotes into the main text.
6 - Drawn by Athens Park Ranger Matt Kantola, maps include a large scale representation of NE Missouri, a detailed streetmap of Athens, and another similar map superimposed with troop positions and movements.