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A historical marker  at the Limestone County Courthouse commemorates the 1862 Sack of Athens.
Daily file photo by John Godbey
A historical marker at the Limestone County Courthouse commemorates the 1862 Sack of Athens.

The Sack of
Athens revisited

Philadelphia writer studies Union colonel’s 1862 action, and why the North applauded it

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com· 340-2445

ATHENS — George C. Bradley didn’t start writing a book that focuses on the 1862 Sack of Athens, but he finished it.

He’s never even visited the city, although he tried once.

So how did this Philadelphia author become interested in one of the city’s most notable historic events?

His friend, author Richard L. Dahlen, was researching Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and the idea of making war on citizens when Dahlen came across the story of Union Col. John Basil Turchin.

Long before Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea, Turchin was bringing the war to Southern citizenry.

Bradley said Dahlen dropped Sherman and opted for a story about Turchin, the Russian born officer who uttered the words, “I see nothing for two hours,” which led to the plunder of Athens.

Although the plunder was mild, compared to today’s atrocities, it caused outrage in North Alabama. During those two hours, Turchin’s men raped a black woman, scared a pregnant white woman who miscarried and died, and took or destroyed more than $54,000 in property, including about 200 Bibles, which soldiers trampled.

These actions were in contradiction to President Abraham Lincoln’s policy that the Union Army was not to endanger Southern citizens’ property and personal security, Bradley said.

Before Dahlen could complete his novel, “From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and The Court Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin,” he died of esophageal cancer. Bradley took up the pen and completed the novel for his friend.

Bradley intended to visit Athens but another invader with a Russian name, Hurricane Ivan, disrupted his plans. Bradley wants to see the city that forced a Union colonel’s court- martial, and said he hopes to travel here this year. Despite never visiting the downtown area where much of the plunder took place, Bradley understands the city’s anger.

“From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and The Court Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin” was started by author Richard L. Dahlen. After he died from esophageal cancer, his friend George C. Bradley  finished the book.
“From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and The Court Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin” was started by author Richard L. Dahlen. After he died from esophageal cancer, his friend George C. Bradley finished the book.
“The area’s outcry over the Sack of Athens did not shock me,” Bradley said. “It was the North’s welcome of Turchin after the events that was eye opening to me. He got the community’s consent for what he did.”

The Sack of Athens led to Turchin’s court-martial. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio, relieved Turchin of command of the 8th Brigade on July 2. Turchin submitted his resignation.

Turchin said, “Since I have been in the Army, I have tried to teach the Rebels that treason to the Union was a terrible crime.”

Turchin admitted there were instances of insubordination and “other grave offenses,” and the men who committed them remained “a long time under arrest in their regiments.”

Welcomed as hero

The court found him guilty on most counts, but Turchin’s wife, Nadine, persuaded President Lincoln to set aside the verdict and commission him a brigadier general. He returned to Chicago, where citizens welcomed him as a hero.

Bradley said Turchin deserved the court-martial because as commander, he was responsible for making sure his men followed orders not to harm citizens or their property.

“If I had been Buell, I think I would have had to take action because he blatantly disregarded an order,” Bradley said.

So why did Lincoln promote him, and the North hail him?

“At the beginning of the war, the commanders were going to Tennessee and Alabama to restore order, and thought the people would be glad,” Bradley said. “That was not the case. It was like walking into Iraq. For the most part, the Southern citizenry did not want them there.”

After the Confederate Army’s repeated defeats of the Union in Virginia, Bradley said what started out as a gentlemen’s war evolved into a “time to take the gloves off.”

He said Turchin took the gloves off before he came to Athens. For example, in Bowling Green, Ky., Turchin’s men ransacked homes and stores.

“Athens is the culmination of Turchin’s actions,” Bradley said.

And afterward, policy changed. Sherman, for example, burned and looted homes throughout Georgia on his March to the Sea.

Bradley and Dahlen’s book, published by The University of Alabama Press, is a nominee for the Peter Seaborg Award. The United States Civil War Center gives the award to the best nonfiction Civil War book that takes a unique approach, such as examining an unusual facet of the war.

Historical marker

Whereas Dahlen stumbled onto Athens’ story while researching Sherman, Athens never forgot Turchin. A historical marker at the Limestone County Courthouse reminds today’s generation about the city’s destruction.

When Turchin became deranged and went to the Southern Hospital for the Insane in Anna, Ill., in April 1901, the Athens newspaper’s headlines proclaimed, “Gen. Turchin Insane!”

“There are none to weep . . . over the dire misfortune that has befallen the Russian renegade,” the paper reported.

“That was amusing to me, the paper running that,” Bradley said. “You know, Turchin’s men and Sherman’s men, I’ve never found a letter from one of them apologizing for what they did.

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