Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Sack of Athens

On the road to Sherman's Total War, an incident occurred in Athens, Alabama.

Major General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, c.1862, Wikimedia Commons
As the smoke cleared from the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), the Union army held the field.  Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel had held his troops in Middle Tennessee in check until it was clear the Confederate army had retreated to Corinth, Mississippi.  He then made a rapid push south into North Alabama to the Tennessee River, arriving in Huntsville, Alabama early on the morning of April 11th.  He had under his command three brigades and several unattached units.  He checked the railroads, telegraph lines and river crossings and through that spring occupied Tuscumbia, Florence, Decatur and up the Tennessee to Stevenson and Bridgeport.  He complained frequently of a lack of cavalry along his very stretched lines and his need for more men.  He was constantly plagued by bushwhackers, snipers and guerrillas who destroyed rail and telegraph lines that his units had repaired.
Detail of G.W. Colton's Alabama, 1859, NY, Johnson & Browning,
Alabama Department of Archives and History
As part of his occupation of North Alabama, with Huntsville as his headquarters, Mitchel sent portions of Colonel John Basil Turchin's Eighth Brigade, including the 19th Illinois, as well as Edgarton's Ohio Battery, into Athens, due west of Huntsville.
Colonel John Basil Turchin, Wikimedia Commons
Turchin, a native of Russia and veteran of the Russian service in the Crimean War, allowed his men to pillage, plunder and rape in the small town.  The event leaked to the North slowly, but ultimately became a scandal, staining General Mitchel's career as well as Turchin's.  A court-martial of Turchin was held on August 6th in Athens where Turchin was accused of neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, and disobedience of orders.

The list of charges from The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion include fascinating detail of what precisely his soldiers were accused:
A party entered the dwelling of Milly Ann Clayton and opened all the trunks, drawers, and boxes of every description, and taking out the contents thereof, consisting of wearing apparel and bed-clothes, destroyed, spoiled, or carried away the same.  They also insulted the said Milly Ann Clayton and threatened to shoot her, and then proceeding to the kitchen they there attempted an indecent outrage on the person of her servant girl. 
A squad of soldiers went to the office of R.C. David and plundered it of about $1,000 in money and of much wearing apparel, and destroyed a stock of books, among which was a lot of fine Bibles and Testaments, which were torn, defaced, and kicked about the floor and trampled under foot. 
A party of this command entered a house occupied by two females, M.E. Malone and S.B. Malone, and ransacked it throughout, carrying off the money which they found, and also the jewelry, plate, and female ornaments of value and interest to the owners, and destroying and spoiling the furniture of said house without cause. 
For six or eight hours that day squads of soliders visited the dwelling house of Thomas S. Malone, breaking open his desk and carrying off or destroying valuable papers, notes of hand, and other property, to the value of about $4,500, more or less, acting rudely and violently toward the females of the family.  This last was done chiefly by the men of Edgarton’s battery. The plundering of saddles, bridles, blankets, etc., was by the Thirty-seventh Indiana Volunteers. 
The same parties plundered the drug store of William D. Allen, destroying completely a set of surgical, obstetrical, and dental instruments or carrying them away. 
The store of Madison Thompson was broken open and plundered of a stock of goods worth about $3,000, and his stable was entered, and corn, oats, and fodder taken by different parties, who on his application for receipts replied “that they gave receipts at other places, but intended that this place should support them,” or words to that effect. 
The office of J.F. Lowell was broken open and a fine microscope and many geological specimens, together with many surgical instruments and books, carried off or destroyed. 
Squads of soldiers, with force of arms, entered the private residence of John F. Malone, and foced open all the locks of the doors, broke open all the drawers to the bureaus, the secretary, sideboard, wardrobes, and trunks in the house, and rifled them of their contents, consisting of valuable clothing, silver-ware, silver-plate, jewelry, a gold watch and chain, etc., and in the performing of these outrages they used coarse, vulgar, and profane language to the females of the family. These squads came in large numbers and plundered the house thoroughly.  They also broke open the law office of said Malone and destroyed his safe and damaged his books.  A part of this brigade went to the plantation of the above-named Malone and quartered in the negro huts for weeks, debauching the females and roaming with the males over the surrounding country to plunder and pillage. 
A mob of soldiers burst open the doors and windows of the business houses of Samuel Tanner, Jr., and plundered them of their contents, consisting of sugar, coffee, boots and shoes, leather, and other merchandise. 
Very soon after the command entered the town a party of soldiers broke into the silversmith shop and jewelry store owned by D.B. Friend and plundered it of its contents and valuables to the amount of about $3,000. 
A party of this command entered the house of R.S. Irwin and ordered his wife to cook dinner for them, and while she and her servant were so engaged they made the most indecent and beastly propositions to the latter in the presence of the whole family, and when the girl went away they followed her in the same manner, notwithstanding her efforts to avoid them. 
Mrs. Hollinsworth’s house was entered and plundered of clothing and other property by several parties, and some of the men fired into the house and threatened to burn it, and used violent and insulting language toward the said Mrs. Hollinsworth.  The alarm and excitement occasioned miscarriage and subsequently her death. 
Several soldiers came to the house of Mrs. Charlotte Hine and committed rape on the person of a colored girl and then entered the house and plundered it of all the sugar, coffee, preservers, and the like which they could find.  Before leaving they destroyed or carried off all the pictures and ornaments they could lay their hands on. 
A mob of soldiers filled the house of J.A. Cox, broke open his iron safe, destroyed and carried off papers of value, plundering the house thoroughly, carrying off the clothes of his wife and children. 
Some soldiers broke into the brick store of P. Tanner & Sons, and destroyed or carried off nearly the entire stock of goods contained there, and broke open the safe and took about $2,000 in money and many valuable papers. 
A party of soldiers, at the order of Captain Edgarton, broke into an office through the windows and doors and plundered it of its contents, consisting of bedding, furniture and wearing apparel.  Lieutenant Berwick was also with the party.  This officer was on the ground. 
The law office of William Richardson, which was in another part of the town, was rifled completely and many valuable papers, consisting of bonds, bills, and notes of hand, lost or destroyed. 
The house of J.H. Jones was entered by Colonel Mihalotzy, of the Twenty-fourth Illinois Volunteers, who behaved rudely and coarsely to the ladies of the family.  He then quartered two companies of infantry in the house.  About one hour after Captian Edgarton quartered his artillery company in the parlors, and these companies plundered the house of all provisions and clothing they could lay their hands on, and spoiled the furniture and carpets maliciously and without a shadow of reason, spoiling the parlor carpets by cutting bacon on them, and the piano by chopping joints on it with an axe, the beds by sleeping in them with their muddy boots on.  The library of the house was destroyed, and the locks of the bureaus, secretaries, wardrobes, and trunks were all forced and their contents pillaged.  The family plate was carried off, but some of the pieces have been recovered. 
The store of George R. Peck was entered by a large crowd of soldiers and stripped of its contents, and the iron safe broken open and its contents plundered, consisting of $940.90 and $4,000 worth of notes. 
John Turrentine’s store was broken into by a party of soldiers on that day, and an iron safe cut open belonging to the same and about $5,000 worth of notes of hand taken or destroyed.  These men destroyed about $200 worth of books found in said store, consisting of law books, religious books, and reading books generally.

Beaty-Mason House, orig. construction c. 1826, Athens, Alabama, LOC

Turchin was found guilty on most charges and lost his command, but was never formally dismissed from the Army.  This event helped propel the discussion of what level of consideration should be given to citizens who supported the rebellion (although the great irony was that Athens had been one of the most vocal pro-Union areas of North Alabama).  Colonel Beatty, a member of the court-martial board, gave this colorful expression to the debate:
The Old Masonic Hall, orig. construction c. 1826, Athens, Alabama, LOC
[Buell's policy of conciliation] is inaugurating the dancing-master policy: "By your leave, my dear sir, we will have a fight, that is, if you are sufficiently fortified; no hurry; take your time."  To the bushwhacker: "Am sorry you gentlemen fire at our trains from behind stumps, logs, and ditches.  Had you not better cease this sort of warfare?  Now do, my good fellows, stop, I beg of you."  To the citizen rebel:  "You are a chivalrous people; you have been aggravated by the abolitionists into suscribing cotton to the Southern Confederacy; you had, of course, a right to dispose of your own property to suit yourselves, but we prefer that you would, in future, make no more subscriptions of that kind, and in the meantime we propose to protect your property and guard your negroes."
Sherman's rapacious March to the Sea after the fall of Atlanta was the ultimate realization of the policy of Total War.  Turchin was promoted to Brigadier General and given a new command by September 1862.


Grimsley, Mark.  The Hard Hand of War:  Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bradley, George C., Dahlen, Richard L.  From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin.  Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 2006.

The War of the Rebellion:  a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

Karamanski, Theodore J. Civilians, Soldiers and the Sack of Athens, Alabama.  

No comments:

Post a Comment