Some people refer to the rape of Athens as "trivial" ,but the events that happened there were far from "trivial",it was a beginning of a larger devastation that was to come upon the South.
During those two hours, his 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. "Not during the remainder of the war was such wanton destruction of property seen by those men," wrote participant Sgt. George H. Putenney of the 37th Indiana.
DAILY Photo by John Godbey
This historic marker ensures the town will never forget that Union Col. Basil Turchin let his men plunder Athens.
A once pro-Union town became an enraged town, forcing Turchin's court-martial and delighting in his death in a mental institution.
Athens was a strategic site for both armies during the Civil War. The railroad that once took North Alabama cotton to Nashville became the supply route for Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman because it went from Nashville to Decatur, and connected with routes to Chattanooga and Atlanta.
The town's destiny with destruction started to unfold April 11, 1862, when the advance guard of Union Brig. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel's 3rd Division, Army of the Ohio, took Huntsville.
Under Mitchel's command was Turchin, a former colonel in the Imperial Guards of Russia. He immigrated to the United States in the 1850s, and met Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan, who would become commander of the Union army, while working for the Illinois Central Railroad. He gave himself a more American-sounding name. When the Civil War erupted, he became a colonel.
Mitchel sent Turchin with the 24th Illinois and 19th Illinois to Decatur. They repaired bridges and culverts, and took Decatur on April 13. Turchin went on to Tuscumbia, took possession and set up his headquarters in Town Creek.
Rumor seals fate
Athens' fate was sealed by false information that Confederate Col. John S. Scott, 1st Louisiana Cavalry, slipped to a black man known to give information to Union soldiers. Scott told the black man that he had 15,000 troops advancing on Tuscumbia. Turchin heard the rumor and notified Mitchel that he was retreating to Decatur. His troops burned the Decatur railroad bridge.
The 18th Ohio Infantry under Col. T.R. Stanley went to Athens to guard the railroad and Limestone Bridge from the Confederates. On May 1, 1862, Scott attacked Stanley's troops. Scott said he drove them to within six miles of Huntsville.
"They left their tents standing," Scott reported.
He burned the Limestone Bridge between Decatur and Huntsville.
The Confederates "were greeted with cheers and a waving of hats and handkerchiefs by the citizens on the square," wrote Mary Fielding, 29, in her diary. She was a live-in companion for an invalid planter's wife. "The ladies at the tavern brought to light a Confederate flag that hasn't seen the light in some time before, I guess."
Fielding also wrote that some citizens assisted Scott's cavalry in driving the Union soldiers from town.
Joseph E. Arnold, a bass drummer with the 18th Ohio Regiment, said the citizens treated the soldiers well before the retreat and he saw no demonstrations against the troops during retreat.
Yet some members of the 18th Ohio told Mitchel that citizens jeered retreating Union soldiers and fired at them from their rooftops. Citizens burned the Memphis and Charleston Railroad bridge near Mooresville, they reported, and captured a supply train. Mitchel heard they plundered the train, fired at soldiers inside and set it on fire, leaving two trapped Union soldiers to burn to death. Union troops from Mooresville drove the citizens away without their booty.
Angered, Mitchel told Turchin's brigade in Huntsville "not to leave even a grease spot" where the community had stood, according to Capt. Knowlton H. Chandler, 19th Illinois Volunteers. Mitchel ordered Turchin, who was in command of the 19th Regiment Illinois Volunteers, 8th Brigade, Army of the Ohio, to drive the Confederate force from Athens.
When Turchin arrived in Athens on May 2, Scott had already left. The soldiers marched up Clinton and Washington streets while coach maker William C. McEnary watched.
"Col. Turchin ordered us home," McEnary said. "When I looked up at him, he said, 'None of your laughing or jeering,' and . . . ordered me arrested."
'I see nothing . . ."
A New York Herald reporter quoted Turchin's famous words to his men, "I see nothing for two hours."
Charlotte Hine, a widow, said a soldier told one 14-year-old female slave, "I want to use you." Hine ran into the yard and saw two soldiers rape her. Hine said she helped the girl's mother escape into a thicket, as the soldiers had said they would "have her next."
Soldiers also fired inside the home of a Mrs. Hollingsworth and threatened to burn it, causing her to miscarry and subsequently die.
They stole or destroyed Bibles, furniture, medical instruments and merchandise.
When citizens complained, Mitchel ordered a search of the soldiers' knapsacks and baggage. Officers reported no articles found that regulations did not authorize.
When Gen. Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio, moved his headquarters to Huntsville in June, he launched an investigation into the sack of Athens. He relieved Turchin of command of the 8th Brigade on July 2 and ordered him to report to his regiment with the 19th Illinois Volunteers.
On July 5, Buell ordered a court-martial, and Turchin submitted his resignation. He wrote, "I was at the head of my brigade everywhere and always on duty. Instead of thanks, I receive insults; therefore I respectfully tender my unconditional resignation."
Turchin faced multiple charges and pleaded innocent except to violating regulations by having his wife near battle lines. Turchin requested that the court require witnesses to state under oath whether they were for the Union or Confederate States, and then require them to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States before testifying.
The court refused.
Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield, a future U.S. president, served on the court-martial panel during the first part of the trial. He also preached at Mooresville Church of Christ at a church elder's request. The elder was an ancestor of local historian Richard Martin.
At first, Garfield was appalled by Mitchel and Turchin's actions.
'So black a page'
"There has not been found in American history so black a page as that which will bear the record of Gen. Mitchel's campaign in North Alabama," Garfield said.
As the trial progressed, however, Garfield changed his mind, saying Turchin had "quite won my heart." Garfield resigned from the panel before the trial ended due to health problems from dysentery.
Turchin testified that to protect his men and secure the area, soldiers destroyed some fields and fences, but added that the citizens did not ask for protection. He ordered his men to disarm citizens and take horses for the U.S. military.
"Since I have been in the Army, I have tried to teach the Rebels that treason to the Union was a terrible crime," he said.
Turchin said his action from "a military point of view at Athens, was done in accordance with military exigencies under the then passing circumstances."
"I proved that the extent of depredations committed in Athens was not known by me and was not reported to me by anybody in proper time," Turchin said. "I have been hated everywhere by secessionists in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, and I consider it to be a good recommendation for a loyal officer."
Turchin said he received a report of three soldiers raping a "yellow girl of Mrs. Hine's." Turchin said he found the offender and sent him to the provost marshal at Huntsville, where he was under arrest "some time," then released.
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."
Findings of guilt
The court found him guilty on all but two counts, the charge of not paying for board and the charge of taking more than adequate provisions from citizens. 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.
Mary Fielding wrote in her diary, "Twill be done again all over the South where they have the power."
Athens citizens did not forget the destruction of their town.
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.
Turchin died at the hospital June 18, 1901. A historical marker at the Limestone County Courthouse ensures the town never forgets the man who came to Athens and shut his eyes for two hours.
When Abraham Lincoln "set aside the verdict" and rewarded Turchin with a star on his shoulder,Lincoln sanctioned and commissioned out right war on innocent civilians.The rape of Athens made it possible for men like Sherman and Sheridan to wage a savage war of destruction that was aimed against the innocent and defenceless of society,women,children and the elderly.It allowed an unjust war to become barbaric.