John Basil Turchin: The Russian Thunderbolt

Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchinoff, better known as General John Basil Turchin. the "Russian Thunderbolt," was actaually from the Don region of the Ukraine.
Ivan Vasiliyevich Turchinoff, better known as General John Basil Turchin. the “Russian Thunderbolt,” was actaually from the Don region of the Ukraine.

>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.

Assault on Missionary Ridge.  General Turchin';s brigade was one of the firs to reach the summit and defeat the Rebel.
Assault on Missionary Ridge. General Turchin’;s brigade was one of the firs to reach the summit and defeat the Rebel.

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.

8 thoughts on “John Basil Turchin: The Russian Thunderbolt

  1. I take photo requests for Mound City National Cemetery for a website. I have taken many photos of the headstone of Brig. General John Basil Turchin and his wife, Nadine. I have read details of the court martial and some of the issues were very silly and the testimony against the General was ridiculous. General Turchin’s counsel didn’t show up at the court martial and he had to represent himself in the proceedings. He did take his courageous wife, Nadine, with him on the battlefield as a field nurse. He wasn’t the only Union Officer who had his wife with him.

    I believe General Turchin had an unfair stigma placed on him at his death. Anna State Hospital was a dumping ground for people who had dementia and Alzheimer’s for many decades. These conditions were not understood in that era. General Turchin had dementia brought on by a heat stroke. I do not believe he was crazy as the media portrayed him by saying he died in an insane asylum. He passed away after being there for only 3 weeks.

    The Turchins were great Americans and extraordinary people.

    1. I agree. Just viewing the short snippets on Turchin one gets a very negative impression, but the deeper one looks at Vasili and his wife one gains more and more respect. I investigated the “Rape of Athens” for my forthcoming book on Bierce and while his regiment did go on a rampage, no civilians were injured and they had substantial reason to believe that the residents were aiding and abetting guerillas; and as I noted in the article, compared to what Sherman’s boys later did it was mild indeed. Turchin and his wife came from the Russian nobility but became dedicated reformers and later political exiles. Their reformist sympathies were what drew them to Lincoln and the Republicans.

  2. I am General’s descendant living in the USA right now and I was born in Ukraine. General Turchaninov never spoke Ukrainian. The Don river you are correctly pointed as his birthplace is in the Southern Russia. Please check it out on the map. Ukrainian cossacks lived along Dnepr River which is completely different area and different people. General was Russian patriot and soldier who was born in the area where Russian cossacks lived (southern Russia along Don river).
    Your statement:

    “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.”

    is only partly correct. Yes, there was Kiev Rus but it wasn’t the ‘Kingdom based in the Ukraine’. in 11 century Kiev Rus spread all way to White and Baltic seas and to borders with modern Poland on the west. Kiev Rus was destroyed by Tatars and Duchy of Moscow became leader in fight with Tatars since Kiev as a capital was completely destroyed and didn’t have ANY political power or meaning anymore. After 300 years Tatars were eventually defeated by combined force of Russian troops while remains of Kiev Rus became part of Polish-Lithuanian kingdom who by the way joined forces with Tatars to attack Russian territory from West and East at the same time. Thus there wasn’t any Ukrainian based kingdom since at this point Ukraine didn’t even exist. General wasn’t ‘Ukrainian thunderbolt’ but was a “Russian Thunderbolt’. Please don’t change nationality of my ancestor especially in the light of modern political turmoils.

    Rostislav Turchaninov

    1. You’re quite right about Ukraine being a modern creation politically and Gen. Turchin would have identified himself as Russian; in writing a blog I often have to simplify a complex series of events or facts for the sake of brevity. The Ukraine is a territory that has been much fought over for centuries; the Poles claimed it as their own, as did Tartars, Moscovites, etc. It was briefly independent during the Russian Revolution but did not achieve genuine independence until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And yes, Genera Turchin was called “The Russian Thunderbolt” by his contemporaries. He was one of the better field commanders in the Army of the Cumberland during the Civil War.

  3. Thank you very much for the clarification and I am glad that we shared same vision!
    Rostislav Turchaninov

  4. Do you know of any descendants of Gen Turchin that were born in the USA and used the surname Turchin?

    1. Yes, Ross Turcahninov corrected me awhile back when I characterized the general as “Ukrainian.” He wasn’t; he was born in south Russia and, in any case, the Ukraine did not exist as a separate state at that time. General Turchin wrote an account of Missionary Ridge and his wife’s diary has also been published in an Illinois historical journal. Nina Turchin was quite a character in her own right and not afraid to upbraid even President Lincoln in person when she thought her husband had not been treated fairly.

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