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Why did Union troops sack and pillage Athens?


By Jerry Barksdale
Jbarks1248@aol.com

“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 martial.

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 Courthouse.

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.

On The Web: http://www.enewscourier.com/Jerry%20Barksdale/local_story_040213825.html