Januarius MacGahan’s dispatches from the 1876 April Uprising in Bulgaria horrified Europe with reports of an Ottoman massacre of Orthodox Christians in Batak.

Homicide on a grand scale used to be termed a “massacre,” and some still prefer that unambiguous term, though in the 20th century we learned more diplomatic turns of phrase, such as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” By whatever name you call it, mass murder has been around at least since the Israelites staked their claim to Canaan.

The modern era of genocide began in a forgotten corner of the Ottoman empire—not in Armenia in 1915, as many people believe, but in a small Bulgarian village in 1876. That event—the massacre of the residents of Batak—was part of the April Uprising against Ottoman rule in Bulgaria. Today it is a mere footnote in history. The Ottoman Turks were Muslims, and their Bulgarian subjects were Eastern Orthodox Christians, so what began as a war of independence quickly escalated into holy war. During the uprising, while the Western world expressed outrage and issued strongly worded denunciations, the forces of Sultan Abdülaziz slaughtered upward of 15,000 Bulgarians.

As horrific as events in Bulgaria were, Americans would have taken scant notice—in 1876 the only “massacre” the nation cared about was the one on the banks of the Little Bighorn River on June 25—but for the fact that an Ohio-born journalist, Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, first reported details of the slaughter in Batak. The 32-year-old correspondent for London’s Daily News is justly recalled as one of the first investigative journalists in history.

Despite containing all the elements of present-day headline stories—political repression, religious persecution, crimes against humanity, etc.—the Batak Massacre remains almost unheard of for three reasons. First, the Iron Curtain cloaked the records of Eastern Europe from the prying eyes of the West for much of the 20th century. Second, the timing remained murky, as events from that period in that part of the world bear two dates, Old Style and New Style, referring respectively to the earlier Julian and modern Gregorian calendars. And third, the principal sites bear names in two languages, Turkish and Bulgarian.

The historical roots of the conflict date from the late 14th century, when the Ottomans conquered the region and sought to render it Turkish in all things—including religion. Meanwhile, czarist Russia assumed the role of protector of the Balkan people for religious, ethnic and political reasons.

The April Uprising owed much, philosophically and politically, to Greece’s revolt against Turkish domination five decades earlier. In the years leading up to the Bulgarian uprising, exiles planted the seeds of revolt during clandestine meetings in Bucharest, capital of the autonomous Ottoman region of Romania. In May 1872—with Moscow’s blessing and tacit support—exiles formed the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee (BRCC) as a government in exile. They ultimately selected Hristo Botev their voivoda (revolutionary leader). Botev, an adherent of Marxism, was more of an intellectual than a fanatical revolutionary.

The BRCC set up its headquarters in Giurgiu (Giurgevo), a river town on the Romanian side of the Danube, connected by ferry to Ruschuk (Ruse) on the Bulgarian side. The central committee members lacked organizational skills, which became apparent in the plans they made for a popular uprising in 1875.

Their first effort that September fizzled embarrassingly. Undeterred, they planned a follow-up revolt for the spring of 1876, first dividing the country into four revolutionary districts with cells in all major cities. The leaders of each district and cell called themselves “apostles,” in deference to founding revolutionary leader Vasil Levski (aka the “Apostle of Freedom”), a onetime Orthodox monk whom the Ottomans had captured and executed in 1873. Among the more practical-minded apostles was Georgi Benkovski.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman government in Istanbul (Constantinople) had no desire to commit precious military assets to a low-grade insurgency; it left that job up to detachments of local Muslim militiamen with no military training, no logistical support and no formal structure. The Bulgarians called them bashi-bazouks (literally “disturbed heads”). They were not part of the regular Ottoman military; they just did the empire’s dirty work. Many were Muslim converts (pomaks) recruited from the Ottomans’ subject peoples, including Bulgarians, Circassians (from the Caucasus region) and Albanians. They furnished their own arms and horses and lived off what they looted. Their favorite weapon was the yatagan, a curved, single-edged saber with Mongol origins. Brutal and undisciplined, the bashi-bazouks were more than willing to wipe their Christian countrymen off the face of the earth.

The BRCC revolutionaries made a series of amateurish mistakes from the outset. For one, they invited anyone interested in independence to attend their “secret meetings,” and at those meetings they spent more time debating philosophy than making plans. They also failed to establish a formal military chain of command, instead relying on the apostles to serve as both commissars and commanders. From its headquarters in Giurgiu the BRCC exercised only nominal control over local cells in Bulgaria, leading to the biggest mistake of all: a decision to allow each cell to choose whether it would rise up on the appointed day, May 13, 1876 (May 1, according to the Julian calendar the planners used).

The date was the only thing the leadership could agree on.

Any veteran of Europe’s 19th century uprisings could have told the Bulgarian revolutionaries they were ill prepared to take on the bashi-bazouks, that patriotic fervor was no substitute for modern arms and artillery.

The revolutionary troops comprised peasants, teachers and priests. In lieu of formal uniforms, they wore the traditional Bulgarian short jacket, baggy pantaloons, peasant blouse, waist sashes and leggings bound with leather thongs. On their heads they wore fez-style felt hats, just like the bashi-bazouks. The only trappings that distinguished them from their countrymen were a peacock feather and the emblem of a lion worn on the hat. A far more serious shortcoming was their lack of a war chest to fund the revolution. They lived from hand to mouth, taking up a collection whenever they needed something. They could not even count on foreign aid from the Serbs and Russians, who, while sympathetic, largely remained on the sidelines.

The BRCC’s basic fighting unit was the cheta (cohort), composed of volunteers called chetniks (rebels). Each chetnik was to arm himself with a rifle, a sword or dagger, a pair of revolvers and all the bullets he could carry. Some men fresh off the farm showed up at musters with scythes, literally to be hammered into swords, plus whatever bits of lead they could scrounge to mold into bullets. The committee sought in vain to purchase artillery on the black market, which would have given them a big advantage over the bashi-bazouks. Instead, they had to make their own. Lacking both foundries and ironworking skills, they fashioned improvised cannons out of cherry wood and lined the barrels with copper sheathing reinforced with iron bands. The results were not encouraging: The wooden guns were good for only two or three shots before bursting, in the process sometimes taking out the crew. The rebels’ search for a flag met with better luck, however. Approached by the apostles, Rayna Knyaginya, a schoolteacher in the town of Panagyurishte, stitched together a banner out of scraps of velvet, red on one side and green on the other, emblazoned with a rearing lion and the motto “Liberty or Death.”

As rallying points the BRCC selected two fortified mountain camps, one in Bulgaria’s northern range and the other in the south. Planners expected that after the initial uprising volunteers from Serbia and Romania would pour into these camps. Meanwhile, the committee’s vague military strategy was to sever railroad and telegraph links to Istanbul and drive the enemy from the towns into open country. The cells in villages with a Turkish garrison were ordered to burn the entire town to the ground—a tactic guaranteed to be deeply unpopular with the mass of Bulgarians. BRCC leaders hoped for a lightning revolution, as with no war chest, no fortified base of operations and no safe haven to which they might retreat, they could not carry on a prolonged war.

Ottoman authorities got wind of the uprising—including the identities of its leaders—long before May 13. On May 2 (April 20 by the Julian calendar, hence the term April Uprising) a detachment of mounted rural police commanded by Captain Nedjib Aga arrived in the town of Koprivshtitsa to arrest local organizers. At that point Todor Kableshkov, head of the local cell, made the fateful decision not to wait for the agreed-on date but to launch the uprising immediately. He and his chetniks reduced the Koprivshtitsa police station and then clashed with police at a stone bridge leading into town. Kableshkov dashed off a letter to district leaders, proclaiming the day of deliverance had come. Legend has it he signed the proclamation using the blood of a dead policeman.

The “Bloody Letter” soon arrived in the hands of apostle Georgi Benkovski, head of the revolutionary district, based in Panagyurishte—hometown of rebel flag seamstress Knyaginya. Benkovski, a man with natural military talent, rallied his chetniks, who promptly hacked to death every Turk they could get their hands on. Benkovski then formed a “flying band” of 200 horsemen to ride to the aid of other villages. The unit left Panagyurishte on the night of May 3 with only the vaguest idea of where they were going.

As word of the rebel victories spread, Bulgarians nationwide openly feted the news, but their celebrations were premature. Having started the revolution more than 10 days before Turkish authorities had expected it, the chetniks had caught their enemy unprepared, but the population at large remained uncommitted, many waiting to see how things played out before rising up. Moreover, modern arms the rebels had purchased on the black market had not yet arrived, nor had the expected flood of foreign volunteers—in part because Ottoman authorities controlled all the main roads into the country. The best fighters in the revolutionary ranks were in Benkovski’s flying band, but they were few in number and lacked a system to field replacements when the inevitable casualties began to mount.

Though taken by surprise, the Ottomans were quick to recover. The bashi-bazouks took to the field, while Istanbul, which had re-established telegraph communication, mobilized the regular army. The chetniks were simply no match for the better-organized, better-armed Ottoman troops, not even for the bashi-bazouks, and were soon on the run. Nature itself seemed to conspire against the revolutionaries as torrential spring rains ruined much of their powder and supplies. The bashi-bazouks relied on terrorism as their primary tactic, for which the chetniks had no military answer. Refugees and fighters alike fled to Mount Eledjik in the northern mountains, hoping to find refuge. But the bashi-bazouks tracked them down, surrounded the camp, and killed or captured almost everyone. The valiant fight put up by defenders holds an honored spot in national history as Bulgaria’s Alamo.

Batak was quite another matter.

Tucked into a valley of the northern mountains, Batak was a midsize village of some 900 buildings and fewer than 9,000 men, women and children. Thanks to a thriving timber industry, it was the most prosperous town in the region. At the heart of town was the Orthodox Church of St. Nedelya, constructed in 1813. There was nothing architecturally impressive about the church; it was made of rough-hewn stone, windowless, and topped by a low-pitched slate roof. Surrounding it was a 6-foot-high stone wall entered by a single narrow gate. Though no basilica, St. Nedelya might well have been St. Peter’s in the hearts of its congregants, functioning as both a house of worship and a community center.

Batak itself was no revolutionary hotbed, but when the call came, virtually its entire male population took up the cause. That said, their collective arsenal comprised little more than pitchforks and old smoothbore muskets. Adding to their woes, the nearest villages—Dospat, Nevrokop and Chepino—were overwhelmingly Muslim and hostile to the residents of Batak. When the bashi-bazouks came calling, these villages did nothing to help their Christian neighbors.

Indeed, leading the force against Batak was Ahmed Aga, a bashi-bazouk captain from Dospat, described by a contemporary historian as a “low, ignorant brute, who can neither read nor write”—not that book learning was a requirement to join the bashi-bazouks. On May 9 Ahmed approached Batak at the head of some 5,000 men, surrounded the town and issued an ultimatum—surrender or face annihilation. Though lacking any means to resist a siege, residents were divided on what action to take. At a hastily convened meeting in St. Nedelya, those who wanted to fight decided to slip out of town that night under cover of darkness, while those choosing to surrender—mostly women, children and old men—resolved to throw themselves on Aga’s mercy. The next morning the holdouts sent envoys to seek terms with the bashi-bazouk captain, who gave his solemn promise that if the villagers offered no resistance, no one would be harmed. Aga then led his men into town without a shot being fired.

The townspeople had made a deal with the devil, as Aga promptly broke his promise, putting the town to the torch and the sword. In an orgy of murder, rape and pillage that lasted three days the bashi-bazouks cast aside all rules of civilized warfare and concern for noncombatants, turning Batak into a charnel house occupied only by the dead. Respecting neither age nor gender, they hunted down every living being, setting fire to houses to drive out any who tried to hide.

Aga, the only man who might have stopped the carnage, chose to make an example of Batak. Despite their shared nationality, he had no mercy for these people of a different religion and culture. He did not even recognize the sanctity of holy ground. At the outset of the massacre a number of townspeople took refuge inside St. Nedelya. When they refused to emerge, Aga ordered his men to block the only entrance and kill all those inside. After rolling carts up against the outer walls, the bashi-bazouks clambered up onto the roof, ripped off the slates and fired into the panic-stricken mass of humanity below. Tiring of that sport, they hurled down oil-soaked rags and pieces of burning wood on the heads of the trapped townspeople. Within moments flames blazed up through the gaps in the roof, the crackle of flames punctuated by the screams of those trapped inside. The victims shoved frantically against the blocked doors, but there was no escape. After a while the screams died down and everything went silent except for the hiss and crackle of the fire.

Other residents who had sought refuge in the schoolhouse and several larger homes were also subjected to a fiery death unless they chose to come out, only to be cut down with yatagans and knives. Those who died on the spot were the fortunate ones. Many of Batak’s women and girls did not die so quickly; they were kept alive for hours to amuse their captors.

After three days the bashi-bazouks ran out of villagers to kill, leaving only mutilated and charred corpses. Scores of headless remains gave mute testimony that decapitation had been a favorite sport. The last insult came when Aga ordered the town razed—a final punishment that also helped cover up the atrocities committed there.

Elsewhere, rebel bands that had fled into the mountains were left to starve, while those who emerged in search of food were cut down where they stood. Even as Batak was under siege, the nearby villages of Peroushtitsa and Bratsigovo also fell to combined forces of bashi-bazouks and Ottoman regulars. Peroushtitsa’s defenders initially repelled the bashi-bazouks, but Ottoman artillery smashed their defenses. Rather than surrender, the last holdouts followed the example of Masada’s defenders in the year 73—they locked themselves and their families inside the church and committed mass suicide. The fall of Peroushtitsa and Bratsigovo ended effective resistance.

Ottoman forces soon cornered Benkovski, the hard-riding apostle. Refusing to surrender, he tried to escape across the Serbian border but was betrayed by a Bulgarian herdsman. Ambushed on May 24, he died in a hail of bullets. His last recorded words: “In the heart of the tyrant I have opened a bitter wound that will never heal!” Perhaps not on par with Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” but nonetheless a martyr’s death.

The uprising was almost over before its nominal leader, Botev, got into the fight. On May 16 he and 200 followers left Giurgiu, intending to cross the Danube and invade Bulgaria. Hijacking an Austrian steamer, they landed without opposition at Kozloduy, where they formed up and set off for Vratsa. Before they had gotten very far, they ran into a combined force of Turkish cavalry and bashi-bazouks, which gave pursuit, hammering the chetniks with concentrated rifle and artillery fire. Botev fought in the front ranks with his men, holding out until June 1. As dusk fell that day, he foolishly stood up to survey their position, and a Turkish sniper shot him dead.

Less than three weeks after it had started, the April Uprising was over. Some 8,000 Bulgarians had taken up arms, and most had died. A handful of captured leaders were forced to endure show trials before being hanged, while tens of thousands of Bulgarians who had not joined the uprising were either killed or suffered in its aftermath. Meanwhile, Istanbul rewarded the “protectors of the empire,” including Ahmed Aga, the “Butcher of Batak,” who was advanced two ranks in the bashi-bazouk hierarchy and decorated by the sultan.

The world first learned of the Batak Massacre not from on-scene reports but from rumors circulating in Istanbul’s foreign community based on letters written by imprisoned Orthodox Father Georgi Tilev and slipped out of Bulgaria by sympathizers. Tilev’s letters came into the hands of two American missionaries in Istanbul, who translated them into English and tried to find someone to sound the alarm about the atrocities described therein. Receiving no cooperation from the British diplomatic mission, they took their story to the British press, which is how they met Daily News correspondent Edwin Pears and Times correspondent Antonio Carlo Napoleone Gallenga. Both men filed dispatches, but only Pears’ made it into the pages of the Daily News, on June 23.

Although the Daily News had scooped both the European and American press with the biggest international story of the day, Tilev’s accounts required confirmation. While the British government dithered, paralyzed by the political ramifications of what the press had dubbed the “Bulgarian Horrors,” the Western newspapers ran with the story, driven by equal parts conscience and concern over circulation.

The whole episode might have died a quiet death had Januarius MacGahan not arrived in Istanbul at the precise moment Horace Maynard, the American minister to Ottoman Turkey, was assembling an investigative team to travel to Bulgaria. Among the best-known journalists of his era, MacGahan was also a champion of human rights. Heading up the team was Maynard’s consul-general, Eugene Schuyler, who happened to be a friend of MacGahan’s.

When the story broke, the veteran reporter was working in London as a correspondent for The New York Herald. When the Herald rejected his pitch about the uprising, however, he convinced Pears’ Daily News to send him to Istanbul. On landing, he found the Ottoman capital in turmoil under would-be reformist Sultan Mehmed Murad V. Taking advantage of the chaos, Schuyler, MacGahan and other team members set out for Bulgaria on July 23. With a translator in tow, they reached Batak on August 2.

The stories circulating in London and Istanbul had not prepared the men for what they found in the ravaged village. Even three months after the massacre bones and putrefying corpses lined the streets and littered the ground, while wild dogs, fat and unafraid, nosed around the ruins. MacGahan took copious notes from interviews with refugees, as well as documenting what he saw with his own eyes. How he managed to get his dispatches out of the country remains a mystery, but his stories began appearing in the London papers within a week after landing in Bulgaria.

What his London readers—and soon readers across Europe and America—learned was the shocking tale of what MacGahan unhesitatingly labeled “atrocities.” He refused to tone down the stomach-churning details of his dispatches to spare the Victorian sensibilities of his readers. His outrage was so great, he wholly forgot his professional objectivity and pointed an accusing finger directly at the Ottoman government.

MacGahan estimated that of Batak’s original 9,000 residents, only about 1,200 had survived. Published in the August 7 issue of the Daily News, his were the first hard numbers to come out of Bulgaria. MacGahan’s final dispatch from Batak reads like a dirge: “There are no tears nor cries, no weeping, no shrieks of terror, nor prayers for mercy. The harvests are rotting in the fields, and the reapers are rotting here in the churchyard.”

What Pears and MacGahan had started, others in the European press kept alive. There were rallies in Britain and France against Ottoman barbarity, while petitions in both countries demanded the expulsion of Turkey from the family of nations. But in the end the two governments let diplomatic caution trump moral outrage. Still, the shocking events in Bulgaria reverberated through the Ottoman capital. On August 31 conservative ministers deposed Mehmed Murad V in favor of Abdülhamid II.

Amid the uproar Russia invaded the Ottoman empire—ostensibly for humanitarian reasons in the wake of the uprising, but in reality because Czar Alexander II saw an opportunity to outflank the Habsburgs and possibly even knock off the doddering Ottoman empire. The 1877 invasion prompted this sardonic comment from MacGahan: “I can safely say I have done more to smash up the Turkish empire than anybody else…except the Turks themselves.” Assigned by the Daily News to cover the conflict, the correspondent attached himself to the Russian army, and his dispatches from the front were the capstone of a distinguished career. In little over a year, however, he fell victim to the same typhus epidemic that killed thousands of soldiers on both sides.

After Bulgaria gained its independence in the peace settlement of 1878, MacGahan became one of its first national heroes. Six years later the American government repatriated his remains, burying them with honors in his hometown of New Lexington, Ohio. In 1901 a monument was placed over his grave bearing his surname and the inscription Liberator of Bulgaria. Although he is little known in America today, the Bulgarian people have never forgotten him. In 1978, at the height of the Cold War, the citizens of Batak erected a bust of MacGahan, recalling this exchange between an American sightseer and a Bulgarian official at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893: The American innocently asked the Bulgarian if he had ever heard of Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, to which the Bulgarian replied incredulously, “Have you ever heard of Washington, Lincoln or Grant?! Well, what you think of these immortal heroes, we think of MacGahan.” 

Richard Selcer is a professor of history at Weatherford College in Texas and an author with 10 books to his credit. For further reading he recommends The Balkans: A Short History, by Mark Mazowser; Januarius MacGahan: The Life and Campaigns of an American War Correspondent, by Dale L. Walker; and The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804–1920, by Charles and Barbara Jelavich.

First published in Military History Magazine’s January 2017 issue.