From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin

Synopsis

In the summer of 1862, the U.S. Army court martialed Colonel John B. Turchin, a Russian-born Union officer, for "outrages" committed by his troops in Athens, Alabama. By modern standards, the outrages were minor: stores looted, safes cracked, and homes vandalized. There was one documented act of personal violence, the rape of a young black woman. The pillage of Athens violated a government policy of conciliation; it was hoped that if Southern civilians were treated gently as citizens of the United States, they would soon return their allegiance to the federal government.

By following Turchin to Athens and examining the volunteers who made up his force, the colonel's trial, his subsequent promotion, the policy debate, and the public reaction to the outcome, the authors further illuminate one of the most provocative questions in Civil War studies: how did the policy set forth by President Lincoln evolve from one of conciliation to one far more modern in nature, placing the burden of war on the civilian population of the South?