Col. John Turchin athens

Col. John Turchin

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the sack of Athens, Alabama on 2 May 1862 by Union troops serving under the command of Colonel John Turchin, who was born Ivan Vasilovitch Turchinov, near St. Petersburg, Russia. Upon entering Athens, Turchin turned his men loose, telling them “I see nothing for two hours.” The unrestrained Union troops raped a black woman and destroyed over $50,000 in property, including hundreds of bibles that were taken from a store and trampled. Turchin was court-martialed for his actions, but suffered no consequences other than being promoted to Brigadier General. In From Conciliation to Conquest, their recent account of the sack of Athens and the court-martial of Colonel Turchin, George Bradley and Richard Dahlen argue that the sack of Athens marked a turning point in the war. Turchin’s promotion gave other commanders the green light. They conclude: “The nature of the war would change. . . . From this point forward, the people of the South would feel the full weight of the war. On the way to Savannah, every brigade commander in Sherman’s army would be watching his men do the very same things Turchin and his men had been castigated for in the spring of 1862. Those volunteers, free to invade, would offer no apologies for doing that which they had come to do. Turchin’s men never did either.” (Bradley & Dahlen, 243)

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10 replies to this post
  1. Excellent piece; I should hope you might expand upon it in relation to the nature of the hostilities. The South, following it's accepted knightly code of conduct fought a classic war that did not, usually, include women, children, and non-combatants. The North reflecting it's villainous leadership eschewed honor and all to frequently engaged in rapine, the slaughter of prisoners, and other war crimes. Thank you for the above example.

  2. One of the very, very dangerous tendencies of a certain element of conservatives is to demonize the North and to characterize the South as "knightly." There were demons and heroes on both sides. I am ambivalent about the "causes" of the war (in general, I do not believe in historical "causation"), and would like to think that if I were the Lord of the North in 1861 I would have let the Confederacy go. It would have collapsed under its own slave weight within a few years, making its economy impossible to sustain, and probably some sort of confederation would again have come about. I guess I do agree that Turchin was a war criminal, whatever that might mean–although I have personally known several Americans who could have been considered such in WWII. The "nature of the hostilities," Mr. May, was unprecedented and unparalleled brutality, and death on a scale that would make Alexander blush. And that didn't come all from one side.

  3. John, I do believe General Lee referred to the Army of the Potomac as 'those people' to indicate a certain antipathy related to his low opinion of the Union army which was already engaged in civilian depredations in the valley as early as '62. But, yes there were atrocities on both sides, and there always is in war. sadly Union atrocities had appear systematic (..the Dahlgren Raid comes to mind).
    Also, the reason why 'certain' conservatives 'demonize' the North is because they understand the difference between what Don Livingston refers to as the 'old Americanism' and Mr. Lincoln's efforts at a 'consolidated nationalism in pursuit of an antnomic doctrine of equality…" There is no real American conservatism that sprang from the loins of Abraham Lincoln.
    I'm engaged with a postmodern conservative at the PoMoCon, First Things site over secession, nullification, and interposition.

  4. Bob,
    I've been thinking about this for fifty years. Nothing you say persuades me in the least. It's just more of the same. I suppose you defend Andersonville, and think that Forrest was a hero (as my good friend Andrew Lytle thought), and just write off the borderer thugs who killed everybody they came across. The trouble with your reverting to the sainted Lee and always, always, bringing things back to Lincoln (whom I don't greatly admire, and never have) is that allows you to gloss over a number of things–and here I stress a number–only one of which is that the Confederacy wanted, whatever else, to conserve slavery. It isn't exactly a moral position you can sluff off on the bad old Puritans.
    Best, John

  5. Oh John, I am happy to join you in counting African chattel slavery as an evil. I am no defender of it and I hope you don't take the rather puerile position of charging people who admire Southern conservatism as adherents to that 'peculiar institution.' However, the fact is, in the first eighty-eight years of our country's existence African chattel slavery was legal. Further, I'm more than willing to confess that ACS was the primary cause of the war, although, for the sack of honesty, we might also consider the sundry tariffs and other usurpations of the general gummint.
    My point, and I think the beloved Kirk is in agreement, is that the Southern political movement to secede from the United States of America was not only legal, constitutionally speaking, but represented the high point of American Order.
    The 'Union' victory, on the other hand, signaled the destruction of a distinctly American conservatism that championed the idea of a federated, constitutional republic and resisted the rise of a perverse and pernicious consolidated nationalism that was grounded on the wacky French idea of an all pervasive 'faith' in the doctrine of individual equality. I would argue this 'fracture' in the American system, regardless of African chattel slavery, was bound to cause a secession unless the Southern political class was willing to whore themselves to the Northern elite who hungered to follow the consolidating-nationalism that serviced the manufacturing/banking elite of the northeast.
    John, it doesn't take any mental gymnastics to see both the evil of slavery and evil of Lincoln's efforts to destroy the 'olde' Americanism. Russel Kirk did.

  6. The problem, Bob, is that just as northerners cannot ignore the consequences of a war fought with ignoble ferocity and government grown to ignoble purposes, southerners cannot simply write off the core institution of slavery by saying "I am no defender of it." Defending what was the ante-bellum South is defending its not-so-peculiar institution. There is no way around it. You and almost all other southern conservatives want to hold us accountable for what you see as the disaster of Lincoln Republicanism. Like you, I find the Gettysburg Address (and the Battle Hymn of the Republic) horrific, anti-historical, morally suspect, and terrible in its long-term effects. But I will not give the moral high ground to conservatives of the persuasion that slavery, and the caste system it required, was simply a minor sideline of an otherwise noble culture. It all went together, just as Republican and nationalism also went together. The "late unpleasantness," as Mel Bradford used to call it, was a true historical and moral tragedy, and sentimentalizing either side is the true lost cause.

  7. After re-reading my comments above, I'm not sure how you determine that I'm 'sentimentalizing' ACS, or counting it as having little effect on our, collective, national conscience. Let's remember that ACS for many of those eighty-eight years of its existence included a number of Northern perpetrators as well as Southern.
    African chattel slavery is a collective and national moral evil. And, I'm equally sure that had there been some agricultural system applicable in the Northeast that would have been served by the work of slaves, ACS would have become an American sacrament.

    Following the Northwest Ordinance and the establishment of the mid-western states, these states wrote any number of pieces of the most vile and racist legislation and kept them on the books long after the 'late unpleasantness.' And, I know you know Father Abraham was responsible and/or supported all of the anti-black legislation he could sign onto.

    My point John is I AGREE, AFRCIAN CHATTEL SLAVER IS EVIL. But it was destroyed. I DON'T hold you or any other conservative responsible for the ignoble acts of the Northern aggressors in destroying the old Americanism, an act that they may never had been able to accomplish legislatively. But, if our intent is to analyze American history then we must understand that the war signaled the demise of those important conservative principles associated with the unique construct of the American federated, constitutional republic. And, perhaps we might argue that Father Abraham and his Northern hosts were not as concerned about the welfare of the enslaved as they were about destroying the olde federated, constitutional republic and replacing it with a consolidated regime better suited to serve the interest of the Northeastern 'monied interest?

  8. Grumpuluple, or argh, or some other word of frustration. Of COURSE you guys are sentimentalizing an Old South that never existed! And didn't I say that Father Abraham diddled the republic with the Gettysburg Address? That is really quite a different thing from the slip and slide about what you disguise as "ACS." It has become popular to implicate northerners in the slave system. In fact, less than one-tenth of one percent of New Englanders ever participated in the slave trade; but it's a convenient thing to say that had the agricultural circumstances been different…In fact, where I grew up in western New York was the nation's bread basket for 50 years prior to the War Between the States, and it was also a hotbed of liberty even though wheat was almost as hard to harvest as cotton or rice. If you study David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed you will find that the cultural prediction of a slave system was in Virginia just as Berkeley set it up, and that the possibility of slavery in Massachusetts was slim to none from the beginning. Racism is not slavery. Ethnocentrism or any kind of bigotry is not equivalent to a caste system. Fifty years ago, my wife was the first woman to marry outside the Dutch in our home town. There were many who disapproved of her choice, but they didn't want to enslave me. I will not accept the deflection. In the Civil War we are not talking about good and evil; remember, it also destroyed NORTHERN conservatism. And the best writer about a true possibility for a real republic was not Calhoun, as brilliant and wonderful as he could be, but Orestes Brownson, a Yankee and a Catholic. The Northwest Ordinance, by the way, about which I have written extensively, was the best expression of the meaning of liberty written in the era of the so-called founding.
    Having now vented, I think you and I could talk quite constructively.

  9. I'm glad you vented and yes I'm sure we 'could talk quit constructively', in fact I thought we were.
    I have no desire to apologize for ACS, or even racism, which, if you think about it, may even be more pernicious on several levels. And, let's put ACS in it's proper moral perspective. ACS doesn't systematically and with gov't tax dollars, murder people; abortion does, about fifty million so far and this the product of the form of governance that is directly responsible for destroying our federated, constitutional republic. I'm no more willing to turn my back on the demonic ritual, the American slaughter of the innocents, anymore than you are to overlook a slave system long destroyed. Millions of infants have died in the 'hotbed' of liberty you're bragging about.

    Re: the nature of the American conservative we should be a people looking to restore/recapture those principles that define that aforementioned republic.

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