The Rape of Athens, Alabama

This entry is part 12 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Colonel John B. TurchinAs the Union armies in the Western Theater penetrated deeper into Confederate territory there were increasing numbers of attacks by irregulars against them. The attacks would precipitate the sacking of the northern Alabama town of Athens.

Guerrillas made regular attacks against Union troop trains, supply columns, stragglers and isolated outposts. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in southeastern Tennessee and northern Alabama.

The first Union troops in the area was a division of 8,000 under Brig. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel. His division entered the area in April 1862, just after the bloody Battle of Shiloh from April 6-7, 1862. Ormsby was best known for ordering  espionage agent James J. Andrews to steal a train in Georgia and disrupt a railroad vital to the Confederate States Army coincident with Mitchel’s planned attack on Chattanooga, Tennessee. The raid failed, as did Mitchel’s military operation.

Ormsby’s troops had a number of experiences with local residents that prompted almost immediate reprisals. A company from the 21st Ohio, passing through the area by train, were fired upon by snipers. The company commander stopped the train at the next station and ordered the house where he believed the sniping came from to be set on fire.

Col. John Beatty warned the residents of the Paint Rock, Alabama area that every time a telegraph wire was cut, he would burn a house. Every time a train was fired upon, Berry warned them that a man would be hung. “We would continue to do this until every house was burned and every man was hung between Decatur and Bridgeport…” He then ordered the town burned and three citizens taken as hostages.

Mitchel approved of these actions by his subordinates. No one seriously expected the Union Army to ignore partisan attacks and  summary execution for those who fought outside regular military formations was a long-accepted tradition. Besides the partisans also preyed on local civilians, taking food, horses and other supplies.

The sack of Athens, Alabama on May 2, 1862 by troops under the command of Col. John B. Turchin was the most famous incident of the time. Turchin was a Russian emigre who commanded an infantry brigade in Mitchel’s division. The attack on Athens was precipitated by Union reports that a recent cavalry raid against them originated from the town. Some of the soldiers believed that they had seen civilians from the town assisting the cavalry by firing on the Union troops.

Turchin assembled his men and told them: “I shut my eyes for two hours. I see nothing.” Business were hit first, and anything of value that could be carried away were looted and anything that could not be was simply destroyed. After rampaging through stores the soldiers plundered private homes.

A slave girl was raped. The soldiers also attempted to rape a servant girl. The violent behavior of the soldiers caused a pregnant woman to suffer a miscarriage and die. The townspeople estimated the damage to be fifty-five thousand dollars. The resulting pillage and plunder came to be known as the Rape of Athens.

No immediate action was taken to investigate the sacking of the town. The citizens of Athens complained to Mitchel, asking for redress. He responded that their charges were non-specific with no individual soldiers being identified. Col. Jesse S. Norton of the 21st Ohio investigated the attack. He submitted a report to Mitchel but it was ignored.

When word reached Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio, he insisted on a court-martial of Turchin. Buell was a noted member of the conciliation party within the Union Army. Norton had gone to Washington to press his case with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton found out he pressed charges against Norton who was sent home in disgrace.

Turchin’s court proceedings received national attention and became a focal point for the debate on the conduct of the war, related to the conciliatory policy as Union casualties in the war mounted. However, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Turchin to brigadier general before the court-martial was finished.

Turchin received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Chicago. Prominent figures called for the removal of Buell and a more aggressive conduct of the war such that it be brought to a swift end. Turchin was given command of a new brigade. He distinguished himself during the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and in the Atlanta Campaign.

Turchin has been portrayed by many in the South as a villainous figure for the so called “Rape of Athens,” however his actions presaged those that other Union commanders, in particular William Tecumseh Sherman, would adopt in prosecuting total war against the Confederacy.




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