The Ravage of Athens, Alabama
Before Major General John Pope was summoned by President Lincoln to command a combination of reorganized forces called “the Army of Virginia,” in June of 1862, he had distinguished himself as a ruthless opponent of Confederate partisans in Missouri and as an aggressive commander in Mississippi. He encouraged his troops to plunder civilian food sources, burn homes in any area of Confederate resistance, hang civilians suspected of aiding Confederate forces, and shoot civilians in reprisal for Confederate guerilla attacks. He continued his severe philosophy of war in Virginia, drawing the resolute enmity of Confederate Generals Lee and Jackson. During Pope’s rise to fame and favor with Lincoln, he received much praise in the Northern press, until his ignominious defeat in September 1862 at the hands of Jackson and Longstreet at Second Manassas.
Prior to Second Manassas, Pope’s praise in the Northern press for his ruthlessly effective Total War tactics was noted by other Union officers of similar tactical inclinations. One of these was the Russian émigré, Col. Ivan (John) Turchin. In the spring of 1862, the Army of the Ohio under Union Major General Don Carlos Buell was occupying Kentucky and Tennessee and raiding into North Alabama. In April, Huntsville, Alabama, was occupied by Col. Turchin, Commander of the 19th Illinois and temporarily in command of the 8th Brigade, consisting of Illinois and Ohio regiments. He quickly gained the reputation in North Alabama as the “Robber” Colonel for his rampant pillaging and indignities of all kinds heaped upon its citizens. His thievery and violence against civilians had been a matter of official record since July of 1861.
In the middle of April, the 18th Ohio under Turchin’s command occupied Athens, Alabama, a prosperous town of about 1,200 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. 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 verdict.
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, Nadine, and an influential delegation from Illinois, personally went to see Lincoln to persuade him, with the help of Secretary of War Stanton, 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 effective July 15. 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 in Washington.
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.
Major General Don Carlos Buell was soon to be shoved aside, as would be his friend, George B. McClellan. Both generals were adamant advocates of the rules of conventional warfare and vigorous opponents of the Total War concept. In October 1862, General Buell was shoved aside by the War Department after the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky for failing to pursue Braxton Bragg’s divisions in their forced withdrawal. Buell could not have safely pursued Bragg, however, because his supply lines had been cut and severely devastated by Confederate General Joe Wheeler’s Cavalry.
McClellan was a conservative Democrat with strong views on how to win both the war and afterwards the peace. In assuming command of the Army in November 1861 McClellan had told Lincoln:
“This rebellion has assumed the character of a war, as such it should be regarded, and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization…In prosecuting the war, all private property and unarmed persons should be strictly protected…”
However, these ideas were in substantial disagreement with the Radical Republican dominated Committee on the Conduct of the War and especially Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton undermined McClellan at every opportunity. McClellan was also grievously disappointed that Lincoln did not seem to take seriously a strict code of honor and conduct in prosecuting the war.
McClellan was shoved aside by Lincoln and Secretary Stanton in November of 1862. Thereafter occurred a series of Union Army disasters, most notably at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
McClellan was the Democratic Party nominee for President in November 1864, but was decisively defeated by Lincoln who won 55 percent of those voting.
Federal war policy was increasingly dominated by Total War advocacy as the conflict continued. In 1864 and early 1865, Total War had left the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and wide swaths of Georgia and South Carolina in smoking ruins. By the end of the war over 40 percent of all private property in the South had been destroyed. At least 50,000 homeless refugees and displaced slaves perished of hunger, disease, and exposure. Protectionist favoritism in U.S. tariff policies would keep the South impoverished until 1913.