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The Sack of Athens

By Ron Soodalter
11/8/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

As war progressed, the niceties of ‘conciliation’ were ignored.

The men of Russia’s Don Cossack cavalry long enjoyed the reputation of being among the world’s most brutal and effective soldiers, and one of them, burly, bearded Ivan Vasilevich Turchininov, would become a brigadier general in the Union Army in 1862, after one of the most controversial incidents of the Civil War.

A graduate of St. Petersburg’s elite Imperial Military School, he saw action against the rebels in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution—an experience that would inform his approach to war for the rest of his life. In 1856, after rising to the rank of colonel in the elite Russian Guards, Turchininov and his new bride, Nadezhda, sailed to America in search of opportunity. He tried his hand at various trades, and finally took a position with the Illinois Central Railroad, under vice president—and future Union Army commander—George Brinton McClellan. Ivan and Nadezhda settled in Mattoon, Ill., and Americanized their names to John Basil and Nadine Turchin.

Turchin worked for the railroad for four years, resigning when the war broke out, to become colonel of the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He led his regiment through Missouri and into Kentucky. Nadine, the iron-willed daughter of Turchin’s former regimental commander in Russia and no stranger to military camps in wartime, traveled with her husband’s outfit. The troops adored her. In mid-September 1861, when the train carrying the 19th east out of Illinois wrecked on a bridge, Nadine tore up her undergarments to make bandages for the injured soldiers, thereby endearing herself to them for the rest of the war. Stories survive of Nadine taking command of her husband’s regiment, risking the perils of battle when he briefly fell ill. For his part, Turchin gained the devotion of his troops by allowing them to forage for food and supplies when the government was lax in providing them.

In 1862, Turchin’s regiment fell under the command of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, and Turchin was given command of a brigade in the 3rd Division. At this early juncture, war policy dictated conciliation toward civilians to ensure that those citizens— primarily in the Border States—still sympathetic to the Union would not suffer abuse, while residents of the deeper South would ostensibly feel encouraged to rejoin the Yankee fold. Buell, a slaveowner himself, endorsed this policy.

Turchin took a different position, drawing from his own military training and experience. During the suppression of the Hungarian revolt, the Cossacks often retaliated brutally when they encountered grassroots resistance. As he led his men farther south, Turchin faced increasing hostility from locals, and conciliation would not be a part of his response. From the very beginning he encouraged his men to “re-supply” from the locals. He allowed them to strip the larders of plantation houses, and at one point—realizing that “I could not chase mounted rebels with infantry alone”— liberated the horses of several planters sympathetic to the Confederacy to form his own cavalry unit.

Turchin was ordered to lead his regiment—by now reduced to only 600 men—into heretofore unoccupied northern Alabama, where his men took constant fire from hidden locals. The farther south Turchin’s forces traveled, the more blatant and vicious were the acts of partisans and bushwhackers. The troops’ frustration—and humiliation—would reach the boiling point in the decidedly pro-Rebel town of Athens. Word of an approaching force of Confederates had driven the men of the 18th Ohio, under the command of inexperienced and panicky Colonel Timothy R. Stanley, out of town, accompanied by the hooting and catcalls of the locals.

Next day, Turchin led his brigade toward Athens as Colonel John Kennett’s 4th Ohio Cavalry set out in pursuit of the town’s former Confederate occupants. What followed has been the subject of debate ever since.

According to Charge I—“Neglect of Duty”—in Turchin’s court-martial two months later, Turchin “did, on or about the 2d day of May, 1862, march the said brigade into the town of Athens, State of Alabama, and having had the arms of the regiment stacked in the streets did allow his command to disperse, and in his presence or with his knowledge and that of his officers to plunder and pillage the inhabitants of said town and of the country adjacent thereto, without taking adequate steps to restrain them.”

There is more than a grain of truth in the indictment. Turchin marched his troops—“frazzled, tired, and with minds unaccustomed to reason or patience”— to the edge of town and ordered a reserve force under Lt. Col. Geza Mihalotzy and Captain Warren P. Edgarton to stack arms on the elevated lawn of a prominent mansion, and to unlimber some artillery pieces on an adjacent lot. Turchin led the remainder of his men into Athens proper, where he directed them to stack their arms in the courthouse square, and to establish another artillery battery. He selected the mayor’s yard as the best site—for its elevation, not out of vindictiveness. At around 8 a.m., Turchin ordered his men to search the houses for stores of weapons.

So far, everything had been conducted in accordance with the rules and customs of war. Then, according to oral tradition, Turchin turned his men loose on Athens, promising to “close his eyes” for two hours. While the eye-closing tale is almost certainly apocryphal, his soldiers did indeed make a mess of the town. They had intelligence—accurate, as it turned out—that the packs and equipment left by Stanley’s men in their retreat had been gathered and taken home by the townspeople. The soldiers wanted their gear back, and they were none too gentle in searching for it. What began as a legitimate hunt for weapons quickly turned into a looting spree. The men stole what they could, destroying what they couldn’t carry away.

Turchin was in the town square as all this occurred, and while he didn’t overtly encourage the pillaging, he apparently did nothing to stop it. The troops saw that as an endorsement. At noon Turchin assigned Stanley, of all people, the job of provost marshal, ordered him to clear the streets and went to the town’s hotel for lunch. Afterward, he left Athens to reconnoiter the surrounding countryside, having heard Kennett’s cavalry had been engaged by a force of Rebels. Turchin reinforced Kennett, and the Rebels slipped away across the Elk River. Meanwhile in Athens, Stanley proved predictably ineffectual; looting continued through the afternoon. Three days later, Turchin was ordered to requisition horses from residents for a detachment of mounted scouts. He provided vouchers for those owners who requested them, and in a number of instances, the horses were later returned to their masters.

The sack of Athens could have been worse. The Yankees refrained from taking prisoners, and from burning or destroying homes and stores. No one was killed, although a slave girl was raped. Clearly, Turchin had felt not in the least disposed to stop his men.

Athens’ citizens formed a grievance committee and presented the U.S. government with a bill for damages in the amount of $54,689.80, and Turchin found himself in the national spotlight. Meanwhile, his name—along with several others—had been put in nomination for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. The ever-conciliatory Buell, however, furious over reports of Turchin’s conduct at Athens, was determined that the promotion fail, and wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that the Russian was “entirely unfit for it.”

Turchin offered his resignation to Buell, who refused to accept it and insisted instead that he face court-martial. Tried before Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield, Turchin faced the likelihood of a guilty verdict and dishonorable discharge. But President Lincoln, fully aware of the overwhelming public support Turchin enjoyed and watching in dismay as Union casualties mounted, rescued the beleaguered Cossack. He not only reinstated Turchin, but gave him his promotion as well. When Turchin took the field again, it was as a brigadier general. He served without incident until health issues led him to resign in 1864. Turchin returned to Illinois—and a hero’s welcome.

 

Scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.

Originally published in the July 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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