Why did Union troops sack and pillage Athens?

By Jerry Barksdale

“From Conciliation to Conquest,” by George C. Bradley
and Richard L. Dahlen University of Ala. Press Attn: Publicity Department
www.uapress.ua.edu 312 pp., $45 hardcover

Described as “shabby” by a northern reporter, “an
ever more unclassical place than Florence,” Athens, Alabama,
was the home of 887 inhabitants in 1860, 338 of them slaves. There
were no whipping posts or slave hunting hounds, as was the case
in Huntsville and Tuscumbia. A majority of voters of Limestone
County had opposed secession.

On a Saturday night in January 1861, local workers held an anti-secession
parade ending on the courthouse square where Alabama pro-slavery
orator, William Lowndes Yancey was burned in effigy. Athens was
home of the Union Banner, an anti-secession newspaper and also
the last place in the state to take down the Stars and Stripes
from atop the courthouse.

So, why did union troops sack and pillage Athens beginning May
2, 1862, in direct violation of government policy of conciliation
toward the south?

The answer lays in “From Conciliation to Conquest,”
a well-researched and very readable book by George C. Bradley
and Richard L. Dahlen, both law-school graduates. The former has
published and lectured widely on the subject of the Civil War.

The story begins in Russia where Ivan Vasilevitch Turchininoff,
the son of a military officer, was born and entered cadet academy
at St. Peterburg at age 14. After experiencing combat in the Tsar’s
Imperial Army, he and his bride, Nadezhda Lvova, departed for
America in 1856 in search of freedom. They anglicized their names
to John Basil and Nadine Turchin and settled in Chicago. Turchin
took a job with the Illinois Central Railroad.

After Southern troops fired on Fort Sumpter on April 14, 1861,
northern volunteers flocked to the ranks to avenge the outrage.
Turchin was given command of a volunteer regiment.

The Lincoln administration followed a policy of conciliation.
“It was hoped that if Southern civilians were treated gently
as citizens of the United States, they would soon return to their
allegiance to the federal government.” Major General Don
Carlos Buell, a by-the-book West Pointer and commander of the
theater of war, which included Alabama, believed in the policy
and intended to enforce it.

Huntsville, described as “the social and intellectual Capitol
of the Tennessee Valley” was captured in April 1862 by forces
of General Ormsby M. Mitchel under whom Colonel Turchin served.
Mitchel, a former math professor and astronomer from New York,
ordered Turchin and the 18th Ohio Regiment to Athens on April
29. He promised that the locals would “raise the flag the
moment our troops enter.”

Eighteenth Ohio established headquarters at the courthouse and
encamped at the fairground, four blocks north of the square. There
was peace and quiet. Some of the union soldiers attended local
church services on Sunday. However, beneath the thinly veiled
southern hospitality laid resentment against the Yankees.

On May 1 at 7 a.m., the peace and quiet was interrupted by gunfire
west of town, followed by cannonading. Union forces fled so hastily
that much of their supplies and equipment was left at the fairground.
Local women jeered at the fleeing soldiers and waved handkerchiefs
in derision. Men shouted and hooted.

Moments later approximately 200 rebels of the 1st Louisiana Cavalry
led by Colonel Josh S. Scott rode into Athens from the west. There
was much jubilation. Local ladies presented Colonel Scott with
a Confederate flag. He quickly dispatched 30 men to burn the railroad
bridge over “Limestone Creek” (it was actually Swan
Creek), where a firefight erupted. A southbound supply train wrecked,
yielding the rebels 1,000 bags of coffee. Before Scott’s
cavalry departed Athens, he ordered the 18th Ohio camp at the
fairground cleared and torched.

At Huntsville, General Mitchel, upon hearing what had happened,
was angry and ordered Colonel Turchin back to Athens. “Leave
not a grease spot,” he said. Having heard that two soldiers
from the 18th Ohio had been killed near Athens, Mitchel announced,
“I will build a monument to these men on the site of Athens.
I have dealt long enough with these people. I will try another
course now.”

The Lincoln policy of conciliation toward the South was about
to abruptly end.

Lurid stories swept through union ranks of how Athens men had
cursed them and women had spit on their guns. Two union soldiers
had burned to death in the wrecked locomotive. It was vengeance
time. “Athens was to be sacked and burned,” one Union
officer later said.

Turchin positioned cannons on the front lawn of the Donnell mansion,
(next to the present day Athens Middle School) where horses trampled
the grounds, before he marched to the courthouse. It was about
8 a.m., and town folks began to gather and gawk. Soldiers of the
18th Ohio entered private homes and businesses ostensibly to search
for weapons and military equipment. It quickly became a pillage.
Houses and businesses were broken open and goods carried away,
a safe was cracked and money stolen, post office funds were taken,
Bibles were trampled, furniture destroyed, food stolen, businesses
trashed, etc., culminating in the rape of a young slave girl.

Turchin turned his head. He checked in at the Davison Hotel –
rebel headquarters – where he dined.

General Buell intended to restore good order in the ranks of
his command and make an example of Turchin. He ordered a court

Meanwhile, on June 20, 1862, Turchin was recommended for promotion
to brigadier general. The court martial began in Athens on July
10, 1862, most likely at the courthouse, with 30-year-old Brigadier
General James A. Garfield presiding. Garfield would become the
20th president of the United States. The night before testimony
began, he told his wife in a letter that the town “had been
given up to pillage and in the presence of the Russian….
was sacked according to Muscovite custom.”

A legal consideration was whether to allow witnesses who were
in rebellion against the federal government to testify without
first taking an oath of allegiance to the United States. They
weren’t required to do so.

The first witness was Athens postmaster R.C. “Davis”
(his name was Robert C. David) who said, “I always called
myself a Union man.” David testified that Union troops broke
into his office and spoiled 200 Bibles and purloined $300 in cash.
Widow Charlotte Haines, who had a son in the Confederate Army,
testified that Union troops took 1500 pounds of bacon and fondled
some of the Negro women. The testimony that followed was damning.

On July 13, the “wizard of the saddle,” General Nathan
Bedford Forrest raided Murphreesboro, Tenn., capturing 1400 Union
soldiers. Three days later, Turchin was promoted to brigadier
general and the court martial was moved to the Madison County

On July 30, 1862, Turchin was convicted for neglect of duty to
the prejudice of good order and military discipline and for conduct
unbecoming an officer. He was discharged from the Army and departed
Huntsville by train, arriving in Illinois to a thunderous welcome.

On Sept. 5, 1862, President Lincoln gave Turchin a new command.
So much for the policy of conciliation.

General Buell, the professional soldier who had ordered the court
martial of Turchin, was mustered out of service.

Soldiers of the 19th Illinois Regiment, on departing Athens,
retaliated in spades. The Davison Hotel – the infamous rebel
headquarters – went up in flames as well as the fairground
buildings, the north side of the square and the courthouse.

Although there are some minor mistakes in the book, overall it
is a good read and I recommend it to history buffs.

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