>With war and rebellion in Russia and Ukraine in the news lately, it seems timely to relate the case of one of the Civil War’s more interesting figures: John Basil Turchin, aka Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchenoff (Ива́н Васи́льевич Турчани́нов), but known to his contemporaries as “The Russian Thunderbolt.”
John/Ivan has the distinction of being the only known officer in the Union army to hail from what was then Imperial Russia—and to attain the rank of general in the US Army. Of Irish and German immigrants who became officers and generals during the war, there were plenty: even a few French and Italian; but Slavic commanders in general were few and far between and from Russia, none save Turchin/Turchinoff, to the best of my knowledge.
Actually, Turchin was strictly speaking not Russian but Ukrainian. Back in the 1860’s, there was no independent Ukraine, however, even though it was an older nation than Russia proper. Originally, there was Kievan Rus and to their north lay the Duchy of Moscow; somewhere along the line the Muscovites appropriated the name Rus and called themselves Russians, but it originally referred solely to the Kingdom based in the Ukraine.
Turchinoff was born in the Don region of the Ukraine, which these days does not flow so gently, on January 30, 1822. Ivan graduated from the Imperial Military School in St. Petersburg in 1841 and eventually rose to become a colonel in the Imperial Guard. During the Crimean War (or should I say the First Crimean War?) Ivan served on the personal staff of the Crown Prince—later Czar Alexander II. Turchinoff also supervised the construction of Finnish coastal defenses for the Imperial Crown, which was hailed as the most advanced of their day.
In 1856, Ivan emigrated to the United States with his wife Nadine, at which point he Americanized his name. Nadya (or Nadine) Turchinoff (born Nadezhda Antonina L’vova)—or simply Madame Turchin—had been the daughter of Ivan’s commanding officer in the Imerial Army and was quite a forceful personality in her own right. She was what used to be called a “daughter of the regiment”—an army brat in modern usage. She was raised in a military environment and was as much a stickler for military spit and polish as her husband proved to be. During the Civil War, in fact, at one point Colonel Turchin fell ill and was unable to command in person. Nadine stepped in and led his regiment in his absence, marching at the head of the column.
When the war broke out Turchin, a civil engineer with the Illinois Central Railroad volunteered his services. He had already organized a volunteer militia company which had put on drill demonstrations in the Chicago area. Turchin became colonel of the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and trained its recruits in the methods he learned in the Imperial Russian army. Turchin was known for strict discipline and had the reputation as a relentless drillmaster. By all accounts, however, his men did not resent the spit and polish of his regime; in fact it became a source of pride for the 19th Illinois.
Colonel Turchin and his regiment became part of the Army of the Ohio, commanded by General Don Carlos Buell. Part of Mitchell’s division initially, his command missed the Battle of Shiloh, being dispatched southward towards Huntsville instead. After Shiloh and the Corinth Campaign, however, the entire army was ordered to do line of communications repair work as they slowly moved westward to occupy Chattanooga.
The army never got there however: the still undefeated Confederate army lay just south of the Western and Atlantic rail line and began an incessant series of raids and attacks against Buell’s men. The Army of the Ohio was now dispersed in small units all along the line and not only subject to cavalry raids by regular Rebel units but also to vicious attacks by guerillas and small groups of civilian “bushwhackers.” After one such incident near Athens, Alabama, on May 2, 1862, the 19th pillaged the town, and incident subsequently called, rather dramatically, “the Rape of Athens.”
In fact, no white women were raped, no buildings were destroyed and only few merchants, believed to have supplied the bushwhackers with arms and ammo, were out some of their goods. On black slave was allegedly attacked by Union soldiers near the city, but it was apparently not the work of the Turchin’s men. Turchin did not actually give orders to pillage the town, although Turchin allegedly told his men, “I close mine eyes for two hours.”
Many in the Army, frustrated by the guerilla attacks, the civilian saboteurs and the random bushwhackers shooting at them, felt that the 19th Illinois’ reprisal was fully justified. General Buell didn’t see it that way, however. He brought Turchin up on charges, including “neglect of duty” (allowing his men to pillage the business district of Athens) which included the “utter decimation of Bibles and testaments, ruthlessly destroyed and burned to pieces in a shop.” A second charge of “failure to perform proper behavior expected out of an officer and a gentleman” was also lodged against him, which apparently included the failure to pay a hotel bill. Finally, a third charge of “failure to obey orders,” was brought against Turchin, which was apparently related to Colonel Turchin allowing his wife to accompany him in the field, something expressly forbidden by Buell.
During the court marshall, Turchin did not directly deny those part of the charges relating to his retaliation against civilian bushwhackers and saboteurs. “I have tried to teach rebels that treachery to the Union was a terrible crime,” he responded. “My superior officers do not agree with my plans. They want the rebellion treated tenderly and gently. They may cashier me, but I shall appeal to the American people and implore them to wage this war in such a manner as will make humanity better for it.”
It was during this same period that Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” is set. While the story was fiction, the background behind it was quite real; more than one local planter received a drum head court martial and execution at the hands of the Yankees at the time.
In fact, compared to what Sherman’s Army of Tennessee would later do during the March to the Sea, the treatment of Athens, Alabama, by Turchin’s men was relatively mild. Nonetheless, General Buell had Turchin court marshaled and he was to be cashiered from the army.
There were many in the army at the time who viewed Buell’s concern over protecting the property of persons who were actively aiding and abetting the rebellion—including returning their runaway slaves—to be far too lenient treatment of the enemy. They called for far harsher prosecution of the war against the rebels.
Moreover, one thing General Buell did not take into consideration in his court marshal of Colonel Turchin, was John’s wife Nadine. She went to Washington to plead her husband’s case directly to the President of the United States. Not only did Lincoln re-instate Turchin, but promoted him to brigadier general. This act not only signaled Turchin’s rising military career, it also marked the decline of Buell’s influence in the eyes of the Lincoln administration.
General Turchin went on to fight bravely at Chickamagua, during the night landing at Brown’s Ferry to raise the siege of Chattanooga and later leading his men up the slopes at Missionary Ridge, where his troops being among the first to reach the summit. Turchin also distinguished himself in the Atlanta Campaign. He amply earned his epithet “the Russian Thunderbolt,” although, as we’ve seen, today we should more aptly call him the Ukrainian Thunderbolt.