THE RAPE OF ATHENS, ALABAMA
In the middle of April 1862, the 18th Ohio under Turchin’s command
occupied Athens, Alabama, a prosperous town of about 1200 population.
On May 1, however, they were driven out by a combined regular and
partisan Confederate cavalry force of only 112 men and retreated
back to Huntsville. The Confederate cavalry was greeted with cheers
and waving handkerchiefs by the citizens in the streets. Reports
indicate that some Athens civilians may have fired on the Union
troops from their homes as they left. The Confederate forces, however,
quickly pulled out of town.
The next morning Turchin marched into Athens unopposed with at least
three regiments of his brigade.
The townspeople, including the ladies, turned their backs to him
as he rode into town. Turchin was furious with this gesture of impertinence
and told his troops he would close his eyes for a few hours while
they took their pleasure in looting the town and terrorizing its
citizens. He then left them to their depredations for the rest of
the day. At least some of Turchin’s troops stayed a few weeks.
Later testimony indicated that numerous homes, offices, and stores
were pillaged. Money, jewelry, dishware, silver, watches, clothes,
shoes, medical supplies, medical instruments, and anything else
of value were stolen. Furniture, carpets, artwork, and fixtures
were destroyed. Books and especially bibles were viciously destroyed.
Numerous testimonies indicated that the soldiers’ language to women
was rude, insulting, threatening, and vulgar. One white woman, the
pregnant wife of a Confederate cavalryman, was singled out and gang-raped,
shortly thereafter dying from a miscarriage. Several black servant
girls were raped, and several more had to fend off attempted rapes.
The commander made his headquarters in the home of a prominent citizen
and refused to let his sick daughter receive any medical treatment.
She subsequently died. Shots were fired into homes and terror reigned.
Some of the troops billeted themselves in the slave quarters on
a nearby plantation for weeks, debauching the females. They roamed
with the males over the surrounding country, plundering and pillaging.
Some Union officers of integrity among Turchin’s troops, however,
reported this to his Division Commander, Major General O. M. Mitchell.
Mitchell immediately rebuked Turchin and notified General Buell
and Secretary of War Stanton. After some delay on the part of Stanton,
General Buell, a very effective officer of high integrity who was
especially concerned that his soldiers conduct themselves with honor,
stepped in and relieved Turchin of command, insisting on his court-martial.
Most of the information in the previous paragraphs was taken from
the court-martial proceedings of August 1862. Brigadier General
James A. Garfield, a future President of the United States, presided
over the court-martial. Turchin and one of his regimental commanders,
Col. Gazlay, were found guilty and dismissed from the Army. Charges
against several other officers were dropped on proof they were only
acting on Turchin’s orders. General Buell approved and signed the
The proceedings of Turchin’s court-martial received considerable
national attention and became the focus of a debate on the prosecution
and conduct of the war. The Chicago newspapers bitterly condemned
Buell for Turchin’s dismissal and court-martial. Their howl for
harsh policies including devastation and plundering by Union armies
was picked up by many other papers. The Radical Republicans in Congress
were especially pushing for a more vigorous and punishing war policy.
Turchin’s wife, evidently a very formidable woman in many regards,
personally went to see Lincoln and persuaded him that not only should
Turchin be reinstated but that he should also be promoted to Brigadier
General: Hearing of this, General Buell protested to Secretary of
War Stanton that:
"If as I hear, the promotion of Colonel
Turchin is contemplated I feel it is my duty to inform you that
he is entirely unfit for it. I placed him in the command of a brigade,
and now find it necessary to relieve him from it in consequence
of his utter failure to enforce discipline and render it efficient."
But within a few days of the court- martial, President Lincoln reinstated
Turchin and promoted him to the rank of Brigadier General. A few
months later Lincoln would make a similar promotion. In November
Lincoln promoted Col. John McNeil, one of the senior officers responsible
for the October 1862 Palmyra Massacre in Missouri, to Brigadier
General. It was obvious that Total War policy had many advocates
Brigadier General Turchin and his wife returned to their home in
Chicago to cheering crowds. He was presented a sword, and a band
played "Lo, the Conquering Hero Comes." On August 30,
General Buell was informed that a large part of Athens, Alabama,
had been burned by Union troops passing through the town.
Source: The Un-Civil War By Mike Scruggs
Truths Your Teacher Never Told You
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