Paying the Piper for Athens, Alabama
With charges pending, Colonel John Basil Turchin, commanding Eighth brigade, Army of the Ohio, was relieved on July 2, 1862 by Special Orders No. 90. During operations two months earlier on May 2nd, he had marched his regiments into Athens, Alabama and without restraint violated orders by allowing his soldiers to have their way with the residents there. Though his soldiers were nothing short of brave in combat, their willful unrestrictive destruction and ransacking that day caused their brigade commander to feel the wrath of Major General Don Carlos Buell, at army headquarters.
The 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, of which the brigade commander came forth, began to suffer insult in the wake of the affair. Although nobody questioned the courage in battle of these western soldiers; upon facing the enemy again they had been ordered back to the rear as non participants and their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Scott, in a fury, submitted his letter of resignation to the army through Colonel James Fry, the Chief of Staff having demanded immediate acceptance.
That same day, Special Orders No. 93 was published from Army of the Ohio Headquarters which called for the assembly of a general court martial at 10 am on the 7th of July in Athens, Alabama to try the colonel on related charges to the incident. Brigadier General James Garfield was ordered to preside over the court as president with a panel of six other officers, all of them regimental colonels.
That 2nd day of May, Eighth brigade had occupied the town having been brought to parade and ordered to stack arms in the street. The troops thereafter had been dismissed and disbursed without established provost and with such liberal enforcement of current orders the supervision of the soldiers conduct went completely unabated. For this, he had been charged with "Neglect of duty to the prejudice of good order and military discipline."
The specification to the charge listed several flagrant violations contrary to a well disciplined and organized army. One party from the occupying brigade had entered into the dwelling of Milly Ann Clayton having opened trunks, drawers, and boxes and declared its contents of wearing apparel and bed clothes, destroyed, spoiled and carried it all away. Threatening to shoot the woman, these soldiers indecently forced themselves on Miss Clayton's servant girl, terrorizing the entire household.
More soldiers entered the office of Mr. R. C. David. Roughly $1000 dollars and much wearing apparel was taken and destroyed along with a large stock of books many of them fine Bibles and Testaments now torn, defaced and kicked about the floor to be trampled under foot.
The house of Mr. Thomas Malone was broken into and looted for $4,500 dollars, the solders in this house had been positively identified as those of Edgarton's battery; and the plundering of this man's saddles, bridles and blankets had been contributed by the men of the 37th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
These occurrences lead to the colonel being charged with "Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman," short and sweet, the ransacked town of Athens was permitted to continue by his lack of action to quell the destructive nature of the troops.
The third and final charge was his sheer "disobedience to orders", in that, he knowingly violated Department of the Ohio Orders No. 13a in the following terms, to wit; "Peaceful citizens are not to be molested in their persons or property; any wrongs of either are to be promptly corrected, and the offenders brought to punishment." One week later on May 10, 1862, Colonel Turchin violated General Orders No. 4 to wit that, "No woman, whether wives of officers or soldiers, will be permitted to remain in camp or accompany the troops in the field..." when he did permit his wife to be with him to accompanying him through town.
After listening to the testimony the court found Colonel Turchin guilty to all on the first charge. His neglect of duty was found responsible for the lack of good order and discipline displayed in Eighth brigade that day. Innocent of the first specification of the 2nd charge, he was found guilty of the 2nd specification in that he made no effort to prevent the disgraceful behavior of the troops under his command. He was found guilty of the 1st, 2nd, and 4th specification of the 3rd charge, being disobedient to orders. The general court sentenced him to be dismissed from the service of the United States.
Six members of the seven officer panel recommended clemency that the offense was committed from one of omission rather than commission in consideration of it being done under exciting circumstances; having taken the town from several hundred rebel cavalry. The commanding general, however; was not impressed and felt constrained to have the sentence carried out.
The question was not one of whether private and personal property may be used for the public service, Colonel James Fry pointed out in the written findings of the court; but when it is, it should be used by authority and in an orderly way. In the affair at Athens, Alabama, the wanton and lawless indulgence of individuals in acts of plunder and outrage is a different matter, tending to the demoralization of troops and the destruction of their efficiency. Such conduct is not the product of vigorous warfare it's only disgraceful and disastrous and punishable with the greatest severity in all armies.
The Eighth brigade had been constructed with four fine regiments. Major General Buell had inspected them personally himself and expected nothing but good service of them. He was still confident, in spite of the charges against them that they would still realize those expectations.
It was the wife of Colonel Turchin who prevailed over the President of the United States to set the verdict aside. On August 5, 1862 he was appointed to Brigadier General, accepting his new rank on September 1st. He remained in the field until July of 1864 taking a leave of absence due to poor health and finally resigned on October 4, 1864.
It had been said that Colonel John Basil Turchin took action against the town of Athens, Alabama for firing upon his lead regiment, the 18th Ohio Volunteers when they arrived. If true, the act could have been better dealt with by peaceful military occupation rather than making a disgraceful display of the federal uniform, and making war against the residents who had no other means of defending themselves. The crafty art of politics, however; won the day and despite the awarded sentence, the punisher got away unpunished while the residents of Athens, Alabama, victimized by the crimes of an undisciplined mob, had more than a right to feel the disgust welling up from within. The stars and stripes had arrived in town; and those in Athens had paid witness to the day that chivalry truly died.
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