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
Illustrated, index, 294 pp., 2006. The University of Alabama Press, P.O. Box 870380, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0380, $45 plus shipping.
Reviewer: Ethan S. Rafuse
Ethan S. Rafuse is associate professor of military history at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College. His publications include A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas; George Gordon Meade and the War in the East; and, most recently, McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union.
In the town of Athens, Ala., elements from a Union brigade commanded by Russian emigre John B. Turchin spent May 2, 1862, pillaging homes and businesses in direct violation of clear directions from department commander Don Carlos Buell that the private property of Southern civilians was to be left alone.
Much like the larger occupation of northern Alabama and Georgia during the spring of 1862 of which it was a part, this event and the subsequent court-martial of Turchin have largely been treated as a footnote in history. That this has been the case is understandable. After all, the spring of 1862 was a season of many important moments, with such events as the battle of Shiloh and Peninsula Campaign occupying center stage in the consciousness of Americans then and since.
George C. Bradley and Richard L. Dahlen make a persuasive case in From Conciliation to Conquest that the sack of Athens deserves greater attention, in no small part due to its place in the North's effort to pursue a conciliatory policy toward the South and the decision to abandon that policy in the summer of 1862. This is not a new argument, as it has already been presented effectively in Mark Grimsley's 1995 study on the evolution of Union war policy and Stephen Engle's more recent biography of Buell.
Yet even readers familiar with Grimsley's and Engle's work will find much of value here. In addition to clearly discussing the broader context of evolving Union war policy, Bradley and Dahlen do a superb job describing federal operations along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad in early 1862. These operations, if nothing else, are suggestive of just how much progress the Union war effort made in the spring of 1862 and the grounds for optimism in the North that the war would soon be over upon which popular support for conciliation was contingent.
The actual sack of Athens is clearly described as well and provides the reader with a clear sense of just how mild, aside from the horrific experience of a raped slave girl, the "sack" actually was.
The authors also do a terrific job describing and analyzing the men who composed the subsequent court-martial, its course and outcome, and the process by which Turchin achieved promotion to brigadier general during the summer of 1862, while they effectively connect events in Tennessee with those in Washington and elsewhere.
That the authors admire Turchin, consider him vindicated by subsequent events, and generally agree with his perspective on matters, is clear.
Although their policy ultimately failed, men like Buell who championed conciliation were intelligent, sober and sincere men who deserve a bit more sympathy for trying to restrain the destructiveness of war than they receive here.
Moreover, more attention could have been devoted to Buell's experience implementing a conciliatory policy in Nashville. It was so successful that an agent from the War Department virtually begged Washington, without success, to drop its plan to send Andrew Johnson to Tennessee as military governor on the grounds that it would ruin the success Buell was having with the local population.
These minor quibbles are more than offset, though, by the great deal of valuable information and many valuable insights that make this book a fine contribution to Civil War literature.