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

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

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

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?

Excerpt

We, as Americans, have great faith in our form of government, and many of us take considerable pride in the notion that our nation is nearly unique, our people dedicated to lofty principles rather than to high and mighty princes. That pride has at times carried with it a degree of hubris, a conclusion that other people in other places should embrace our ideas and ideals just as readily as do we. Therefore, we believe that when we come into those other places carrying with us this promise of freedom, it is only natural that we should be well received.

Sometimes—for example, in Italy and France during World War II—we have been received just as we had hoped, as liberating heroes, as deliverers from oppression, as the champions of democracy. However, we have not always been so received, no matter how lofty our goals and ambitions. There have been times and places in which we went to liberate or protect or restore the rule of law, and we ended up instead as an army of occupation, facing a large segment of a population that did not want us there. That happened in Vietnam. It appears to have happened again in Iraq. It may have happened for the first time in 1861 and 1862—not overseas, but right here, in Missouri, in Tennessee, in Virginia, and in Alabama.

In times of trouble, when the prospect of war comes over the horizon, Americans, often in great numbers, rally to the cause. Those numbers are never greater than when the country comes under attack. No matter whether the attack falls on a major, if sleeping, naval base and is conducted by a foreign power, or whether it is carried out by troubled countrymen trying to break the bonds of the Union by attacking a small government fort, the lines at the recruiting stations quickly grow long. To ask men, and now women . . .

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