[From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin by George C. Bradley and Richard L. Dahlen. (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2006). Pp. 273, $45, Hardcover, photos, maps, notes, bibliography. ISBN: 0-8173-1526-8)]
Although he was a highly educated officer in the Russian Imperial Army and compiled a distinguished combat record in the American Civil War, John Basil Turchin is perhaps best known as an early advocate of “hard war” and—unfairly or not—the villain of the “Sack of Athens”. In their book From Conciliation to Conquest, authors George Bradley and Richard Dahlen begin with a short biography of Turchin and trace in some detail his command history from Missouri to Bowling Green, Kentucky and on south into Alabama. While operating in northern Alabama, Turchin’s brigade occupied the small town of Athens on May 2, 1862 and the men proceeded to vandalize and steal property from both businesses and private residences. No buildings were burned or permanently destroyed, but a young slave girl was raped. Army commander Don Carlos Buell ordered that Turchin be arrested and court-martialed for disobeying orders barring the unauthorized taking or destruction of private property and for conduct detrimental to military discipline and order.
The military operations of Turchin’s brigade and the court-martial of its commander comprise the heart of From Conciliation to Conquest, but the authors skillfully weave other events into their narrative. The trial took place at the time the Lincoln administration’s conciliatory policy was crumbling, and Bradley and Dahlen explain the congressional push for harsher war measures and how the change manifested itself in the Senate’s confirmation process for new brigadiers. Ironically, Turchin’s nomination was confirmed during his trial, the paperwork making it through the War Department after he had already been convicted and dismissed from the service! As an aside, it doesn’t appear that the authors lend much credence to the oft-quoted Turchin declaration “I close mine eyes for two hours!”, in effect granting his men a free window in which to loot the town. Surprisingly, given its persistence, the authors devote only half a sentence to the alleged incident. In the end, from the trial description, it seems most likely that Turchin’s personal sins at Athens were ones of omission.
The authors ask important questions. Was it even possible for volunteers, egged on from all sides by the harsh rhetoric of revenge espoused by newspapers, elected officials, and their own communities, to suppress these urges and carry out a viable policy of conciliation? The answer appears to be largely no, as the time necessary for instilling such a level of training and discipline in raw volunteers was just not available. Plus, none of their reasons for volunteering in the first place included anything approaching desires for conciliation. The overall dilemma is only compounded by the lack of a uniform direction from above and consistent punishment of offenders. Missing opportunities for early suppression of such activities, Turchin’s men were allowed to commit depredations in Missouri and Kentucky without repercussion. According to Bradley and Dahlen, these volunteers had little reason to think Athens would be different.
From Conciliation to Conquest is superb history. With skillful placement of the sack of Athens within the context of the widespread use of volunteer armies for occupation duties and of the larger national policy shift from one of conciliation to hard war, George Bradley and Richard Dahlen have made an important contribution to the Civil War literature. Their expansive, evenhanded, and deeply researched account of the Athens controversy will likely stand the test of time. Highly recommended.
(Reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol. 10 #2, pg. 86)
My review was written back in December 2006 and I really believe this to be one of the best Civil War books published that year, an award-worthy effort.