Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cooper-Wiele: "Skim Milk Yankees Fighting: The Battle of Athens, Missouri, August 5, 1861"

[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]

Skim Milk Yankees FightingFive 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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your kind yet judicious review. Even at this stage, most authors are, I suspect, a bit anxious about how their work will be received. Your astute discussion of "my" book made me feel like I had, indeed, done a good job--at a time when it's hard for me to be objective, mostly just based on the amount of time and energy I invested in it; obviously, sometimes those investments pay off and sometimes they don't.

    Your point about my point of view is very well taken and is a question any historian must do a lot of reflection on not only to answer truthfully but, then, to attempt to abstract it from his or her conclusions, to the degree possible. I think, methodologically, I could have been clearer on this. What I did try to do, which you acknowledge in your review, is make my thought processes, the reasoning that led to my conclusions, as transparent as possible to the reader. As to the larger point of view question, I was, I think, telling the story as descendent of Home Guardsmen and, I suppose, an inveterate Yankee, however ambivalent my great-great grandfather, Capt. William Jackson, may have been--as I intimate in the Introduction. Aside from the pseudonymous "Justicia" and C.L. Becker, and unabashed "old rebel" years later, I didn't find many pro-State Guard sources. This may be for many reasons--the most evident is that many of the papers at the time that
    covered the event were Iowa newspapers. I found no indication from that side that in any way really challenged the dominant model of how the battle went--e.g., there was some consensus on both sides that HG firepower played a crucial role (and, as I think I note somewhere, one can then question, with regard to the State Guard memories, to what extent they were influenced by the early "lost cause" ideology which, as you know, made the same claim on the scale of the war itself; conversely, I think we can assume that, e.g., Moore's emphasis on rifling speaks well for that playing a crucial role, as one might suspect he would be more prone to emphasize superior tactics, etc.).

    I guess my only other thought on representing the State Guard perspective would be my interpretive theme or tool of "ambivalence"--what became clear to me, and which perhaps I didn't articulate sufficiently clearly, was that attitudes were much more fluid in the period leading up to that battle summer--and later than it--than was often supposed by even the participants looking back from the post-war era and after all that water had gone under the bridge. This is also clearer, I think, in an appendix we did not include on the evolution of Moore's allegiance--one which systematically lays to rest, I believe, the old saw that he was a shameless opportunist seeking command who headed up a HG company only after being rebuffed by State Guardsmen. I'm trying to see of the Missouri Historical Review would be interested in a tweaked, article-version of this appendix, or if I can get it published somewhere else; this is largely motivated by someone of the status
    of Dave Page repeating the old saw without criticism in his article on Athens in the 1995 Civil War Times.

    You should also note that Clark Kenyon, aside from being an assiduous editor, was responsible entirely for getting the period photos together, including that of the flag on the cover, and for transcribing the Hawkins Taylor rosters from my copies. The final product bears the impression of his excellent research at a number of points and he should receive full credit--probably as co-author!

    Jon Cooper-Wiele


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