Ivan Vasilievich Turchaninov was a direct descendant from a long line of Don Cossacks [Vsevelikoye Voysko Donskoye] best described as Russia’s famed frontier fighting force. A full-blooded familial and full-fledged fraternal fighter, he followed in the footsteps of his father, a Leib Guard [Leyb-Gvardiya] Major and attended the Imperial Military Academy [renamed the General Staff Academy or Akademiya general’nogo shtaba] in St. Petersburg. He served with distinction in the Crimean War [Vostochnaya Voina or the Eastern War]. Turchaninov was promoted to Kazachy Polkovnik [Colonel] of the Russian Imperial Guard, the personal guards of the Emperors, Tsar Nicholas I and his son Tsar Alexander II.
Esli Druk Akazalsa Vdruk [If A Friend Appears Suddenly]
Due to his disgust at Russia’s defeat on the Crimean Peninsula and his dismay at the terms of the Treaty of Paris that Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I had decreed and Tsar Alexander II had agreed to, instead of and rather than having a St. Petersburg wedding, Turchaninov and his commander’s daughter, Nadezhda Antonina Lvova, married in Krakow, Poland on May 10, 1856. Shortly thereafter, in protest of the aristocracy and autocracy of Russia, they expatriated to the United States. The couple settled in Chicago and Turchaninov, by then known as John Basil Turchin, went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad in the engineering department headed by a former Captain of the 1st U.S. Cavalry, George Brinton McClellan, who’d served as an official observer on behalf of the United States during the Crimean War and was a great admirer of the Don Cossack mounted companies.
As the 1850s turned into the 1860s, Illinois Central Railroad’s former, little known, lawyer, Abraham Lincoln had become America’s 16th President. When war commenced, Turchin lobbied Lincoln for a colonelcy in the Union Army. The newly elected 13th Illinois Governor, Richard Yates, commissioned the 40 year old Turchin a colonel of the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Soon, Turchin and his regiment were reassigned to the newly organized Army of the Ohio under the command of General Don Carlos Buell, who was so impressed with his Cossack Colonel he promoted him to command a brigade in Brigadier General Ormsby MacKnight “Old Stars” Mitchel’s Third Division.
Esli Shol On S Taboy Tak V Boy [If He Goes With You As Into Battle]
In 1862, when Buell went to support U.S. Grant at Shiloh, he left Mitchel in command of Nashville. In Buell’s absence, Turchin advised Mitchel to advance into Alabama. Mitchel agreed and Huntsville was taken in a raid that cut the Confederate railway which connected the Confederacy from east to west. It also earned Turchin a new nickname – “The Russian Thunderbolt” to go along with his old one – “The Mad Russian” that he no doubt got for his displays of frenzy, heroism, and wildness. However, he’d soon show the South and the North just how crazy “that Cossack” was. The “Rape” or “Sack” of Athens on May 2, 1862 would set off a debate that continues to this day – just how hard is hard [total] war to be waged?
The words and actions of Turchin and his men in Athens, Alabama on May 2, 1862 would vilify them as the most vile of villains whose violations of their victims was well beyond the vision of most Americans in the mid-19th century. There were rules of engagement, weren’t there, were the pleas of the press and public to the West Pointers who were sworn to sustain a chivalric code of conduct? Mitchel, who had graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1829 with classmates Robert Edward Lee and Joseph Eggleston Johnston, apparently disagreed that Athens was deserving of any such creed of honor:
“Leave not a grease spot…I will build a monument to these men on the site of Athens. I have dealt long enough with these people. I will try another course now…. Athens is to be sacked and burned”.
Znzchit Kak Na Tebya Samavo [It means You Can Depend On Him]
It all began on April 29, 1862, when Mitchel ordered Turchin and his 18th Ohio Regiment to Athens, Alabama. At 7 a.m. on May 1st, the uneasy peace came to an abrupt end when the 1st Louisiana Cavalry under the command of Confederate Colonel Josh Scott arrived with a bang, with both cannon and gun fire. The surprise attack caused the Federals to abandon their encampment, four blocks north of the town’s square, at the fairgrounds. A messenger delivered the news to Mitchel and Turchin who were meeting in Huntsville, ironically, to discuss the pacification philosophies and policies of McClellan and Buell toward Southerners, including but not limited to the protection of Rebel private property. A fit to be tied Mitchel, tired of guerilla resistance, uttered the aforesaid words to Turchin, who departed for Athens.
When he came within sight of the burnt out Union camp, Turchin gave orders to re-occupy the town. He then assembled all of his men between the Donnell Mansion and Davison Hotel. As he addressed them, the town folk gathered and gawked. What he said next caused the folks of Athens to choke and gasp:
“I shut my eyes for two hours, I see nothing”.
With that he and his officers went to dine and left the soldiers, who’d been embarrassed by partisans for the last time, on their own. They pushed their way past the populace to pillage and plunder private and public property at will. Whatever they didn’t steal during their searches, they despoiled and destroyed. It will suffice to say Athens was subjected to 120 minutes of rape, sacking and terrorism unseen on U.S. soil since. Afterwards, the townspeople estimated the damage done at $55,000 dollars.
Palazhs Na Nevo [As You Can On Yourself]
When Buell was told what had happened in his absence, his reaction was swift. Mitchel was transferred to desk duty in Washington, D.C. and Turchin, who’d offered to resign, was court martialed. The military trial was to be conducted in the Athens Courthouse on July 10, 1862 with the future 20th U.S. President, the then thirty year old Brigadier General, James Abram Garfield, to preside. The impending proceeding received a great deal of press coverage due to tremendous public interest in the case, not just because of the back story of Turchin being Russian, but the subject matter before the military court – conciliatory conduct toward Southerners while Northern casualties mounted – had become the hottest of political hot potatoes.
The Illinois letters to Lincoln, led by the lobbying thrust of Turchin’s wife, Madame Nadine Turchin, in support of her husband, picked up steam like a locomotive as May became June. Thanks to Lincoln’s intercession on his behalf, Turchin was promoted to Brigadier General. Garfield found himself between a rock and a hard place. In a letter written to his wife the night before testimony was taken in Turchin’s trial, Garfield wrote:
“The town was sacked according to Muscovite custom”.
On July 30, 1862, Turchin was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer, of neglect of duty, of failing to control his men, and of violating Buell’s General Order No. 13a, which forbade depredations However, the military tribunal recommended leniency due to extraordinary circumstances. Turchin was dismissed, not discharged, from duty and sent home to await final word. He departed Huntsville by train and arrived in Illinois to a hero’s welcome. Afterwards he was the poster boy of personages who pushed for a rougher and tougher effort to end the war.
On September 5, 1862, he was reinstated and served with distinction during the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga and in the Atlanta Campaign. When all is said and done, Turchin’s “scorched earth” philosophy at Athens must be seriously considered as a, if not the, source of the “total war” policy and strategy of Grant and Sherman. Turchin was forced to resign in 1864 after he suffered severe heatstroke. Upon his recovery he went to work as a patent solicitor and civil engineer. In later years, he developed dementia, attributed to the heatstroke, and was institutionalized until the day he, America’s highest ranking Russian-born officer, died in 1901 at age 79.
His men memorialized him with a parody of “Heres Your Mule” a song written in 1862 by C.D Benson in Nashville, Tennessee that tells the traditional story about Southern soldiers hiding a farmers mule and yelling “Mister, heres your mule” causing him to chase them ceaselessly. “Turchins Got Your Mule”, an account of the affair in Athens, Alabama tells of a plantation owner trying to retrieve his slaves and livestock as follows: “Go back, go back, go back, old scamp, And dont be made a fool; Your n______ they are all in camp, And Turchins got your mule”.
In an interesting side story, Turchins wife, Nadezhda Antonina Lvova, a.k.a. Madame Nadine Turchin, accompanied her husband into battle and distinguished herself by being the only female diarist to detail the battles of both Chickamauga and Chattanooga and the Atlanta Campaign as well. Nadine Turchin died in 1904 at age 78 and was buried next to her husband in Mound City National Cemetery, Pulaski County, Illinois.
Note: The above 4 subheadings are four lines from the famous ode, “Pesnya A Druge” [Song About A Friend], written by the fabled bard Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotskij, “the Puskin of the Soviet era”.
- Bradley, George C., and Dahlen, Richard L.., From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin © University of Alabama Press 2006.
- Chicoine, Stephen., John Basil Turchin and the Fight to Free the Slaves © Praeger 2003
- Curry, W. L., compiler., Four Years in the Saddle: History of the First Regiment Ohio Cavalry © Champlin Printing Company 1898 p. 326: “While stationed at Fayetteville the First Ohio published a newspaper call the Cavalier, which was edited by William Davis, of Company M. and A. Thompson, of Company D, with T. C. Stevenson and Joe Devreax, of Company D, publishers. The motto at the heading read: ‘We Go Where Rebs Await Us’. As will be remembered, it was a spicy sheet, and some poetic cavalryman wrote a parody on Morgans mule, which ran thus: … Turchins Got Your Mule…”.
- Danielson, Joseph. Twill Be Done Again: Union Occupation of North Alabama, April Through August, 1862 © Masters Thesis University of Alabama 2004.
- Jones, James B., Editor., Heres Your Mule © Daily Union [Nashville, Tenn.] July 14, 1863.
- Kurtz, Henry I. John Basil Turchin ‘The Russian Thunderbolt’ © Civil War Times August 1961 p. 28.
- McElligott, Mary Ellen, Editor., Lincolns Russian General © Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Spring 1959 & A Monotony Full of Sadness – The Diary of Nadine Turchin © Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society February 1977.
Morris, Roy., The Sack of Athens: The Ruin of a Southern Town, the Russian Way of War Civil War Times Illustrated February 1986 pp. 26-32.
- Turchin, John B.., Chickamauga © Fergus 1889 p. 295 Letter from John Basil Turchin to Abraham Lincoln dated September 23, 1861.