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.

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William B. Hazen, the “Best Hated” Man in the Army

General-William-Hazen ca Civil War
Brigadier General William B. Hazen, whom Ambrose Bierce called “The Best Hated Man in the Army”

If there was a single person who left an indelible impact on Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce’s life, it was Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen.

Hazen was born in Vermont in 1830, but his family moved westward from New England to the Midwest when he was still young. After graduating from West Point in 1855, Hazen spent his early military career on the frontier fighting Apaches, Comanches and other tribes; later he was posted to West Point as an instructor of infantry tactics.  If any officer in the army exuded spit and polish, it was William Hazen.

Despite his years of service, it was not until the war broke out that Hazen was promoted to captain in the 8th U.S. Infantry.  As the U.S. Army expanded, Hazen’s own career grew aw well; at last, on October 29, 1861, he was made Colonel of the 41st Ohio Infantry. Then, in January, 1862, he was put in charge of the newly formed Nineteenth Brigade as part of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. It was not long after this that his new command was ordered south to occupy the formerly Rebel-held state capitol of Nashville, Tennessee.

Ambrose Bierce, who had served on Hazen’s staff during the war, described as “the best hated man that I ever knew, and his very memory is a terror to every unworthy soul in the service.” Intolerant of dishonesty and incompetence in the military, General Hazen spent almost as much time fighting his brother officers as he did fighting the enemy, both during and after the Civil War.

After a little more than a month of drilling and training his mostly green troops into a semblance of military discipline, (which many of the volunteer troops took a keen dislike to), orders came down to advance overland to the port town of Savannah, Tennessee, to rendezvous with General Grant’s army. As part of General Bull Nelson’s 4th Division they took the van in Buell’s advance, arriving near the town only a day before Easter Sunday of 1862. The next morning they awoke to the sound of distant gunfire; Hazen mustered his men, and then it was a game of hurry up and wait, until finally they were ordered to make a forced march to the rescue of Grant’s men.

Union troops under Buell struggle to recapture artillery lost by Grant at Shiloh.  Ambrose Bierce described it as "a tough tussle."
Union troops under Buell struggle to recapture artillery lost by Grant at Shiloh. Ambrose Bierce described it as “a tough tussle.”

Hazen and his brigade crossed over to Pittsburg Landing during the night of April 6, enduring a night of drenching rain and then a day of hell as Hazen’s Brigade took heavy casualties pushing back the Rebels from the captured Union camps. During the afternoon, Hazen became temporarily separated from his troops, but his stern discipline and rigorous training made them through the day, repulsing repeated Confederate counterattacks. The struggle of Hazen’s Brigade was immortalized in Ambrose Bierce’s famous memoir of the battle, “What I Saw of Shiloh.”

The following months proved frustrating, both for Hazen and his men and for the Army of the Ohio in general, as they first spent a month slowly advancing on the Rebel army in Corinth, Mississippi, only twenty miles away, and then were assigned to advance on Chattanooga while trying to both repair and defend the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which ran through northern Mississippi and Alabama, the entire length of which was vulnerable to attack by Confederate cavalry and Rebel guerillas. The guerilla warfare became quite nasty and the Federals replied in kind. Again, one can look to the recruit from Indiana, Ambrose Bierce, who immortalized this obscure period of Hazen’s Brigade service in his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,"  by Ambrose Bierce was based on the experiences of Hazen's men in the late spring and early summer of 1862 in northern Alabama.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce was based on the experiences of Hazen’s men in the late spring and early summer of 1862 in northern Alabama.

By late summer, Hazen and his men were relieved of frustrating duty along the railroad and instead headed north into Kentucky in pursuit of the Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, finally halting them at the Battle of Perryville.
Following the Kentucky Campaign, the Federal army was reorganized under a new commander, General Rosecrans and renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Hazen’s Brigade was also renumbered and reorganized, having become ragged and lax (according to General Hazen’s thinking) during the chaotic summer and fall campaigning. By the time Christmas came, they were back up to his standards and fought in the bloody winter Battle of Stone’s River.

Here again Hazen’s men fought the Rebels to a standstill, preventing the enemy from rolling up the Union flank at the Round Forest. Although the brigade went on to other duties, they erected a monument on the site of the fight, which still stands on the battlefield today.

The year 1863 saw Hazen and his men heavily engaged, first in the lighting fast Tullahoma Campaign and then in the subsequent maneuvering to force Bragg out of Chattanooga. Unfortunately, having succeeded beyond all expectations, Rosecrans became overconfident and engaged in a headlong pursuit of the Army of Tennessee before he had consolidated his own army around Chattanooga, leading to the Battle of Chickamauga, in which Hazen and his men again played an important part.

In a daring night raid, General Hazen and his men seized Brown's Ferry and broke the siege of Chattanooga.
In a daring night raid, General Hazen and his men seized Brown’s Ferry and broke the siege of Chattanooga.

During the subsequent siege of Chattanooga, Genera Hazen led a dangerous night mission to seize Brown’s Landing to open up the “Cracker Line” which effectively broke the Confederate siege of the city. At the Battle of Missionary Ridge, Hazen’s men took first honors in reaching the summit and beating back the enemy—although he butted heads with General Sheridan, who tried to claim credit for reaching the summit first.

Assault on Missionary Ridge.  General Hazen's Brigade were  the first to seize the summit and capture the Confederate cannon there.
Assault on Missionary Ridge. General Hazen’s Brigade were the first to seize the summit and capture the Confederate cannon there.

During the Atlanta Campaign, Hazen’s Brigade suffered further attrition, until the by now eight regiments of his command numbered little more than one new regiment in strength. Often the brigade suffered more from the incompetence of its superior officers—such as the notorious General O. O. Howard—(or as his men called him “Uh-Oh” Howard) than from the enemy. At Pickett’s Mill, Hazen was ordered to attack a superior force, entrenched and prepared for them, without proper support. Hazen’s men suffered heavy casualties as a result.

After Atlanta, General Hazen, in recognition for his fighting abilities and qualities as commander, was given a full division in Sherman’s March to the Sea and in the subsequent Carolina Campaigns, leading troops in battle up to the end of the war.

After the war Hazen, now reduced to Colonel, served on the frontier, not only protecting settlers from the Indians, but also occasionally protecting peaceful Indians from the murderous attacks of his fellow army officers. Hazen also blew the whistle on army scandals within the Grant administration, which did not endear him to politicians or some of his fellow officers.

He died relatively young, at age 56 in 1887, and is buried at Arlington Cemetery. In his obituary, the New York Times called him “aggressive and disputatious”, while his former subordinate and close friend, Ambrose Bierce, described him as “the Best Hated Man in the Army.” Both descriptions aptly fit William B. Hazen, an irascible but brave officer and one of the best generals in the Army both during and after the war.

For more strange but true Civil War stories and events, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

An Execution in Alabama

La Riviere du Houbou
The French short film version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, “La Riviere du Houbou” by Robert Enrico, won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar.

Something recently came across my cluttered work-desk which put me thinking about one of my favorite authors–and one of the great writers of American letters–Ambrose Bierce.

The object in question is an audio gem produced by a company called American Listeners Theatre.  The CD is a recording of three Civil War tales by Ambrose Bierce, including an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, A Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the Sky.  Titled “Ambrose Bierce, Live on Tour,” it is performed by Timothy Patrick Miller, who, it is said, is to Bierce what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain. The version I heard was a commemorative performance held at the Union League. The presentation is straightforward—just the human voice and the work of an acknowledged master of the written word. No doubt the producers of the CD could have overdubbed all sorts of computer gimmickry and sound effects, but when your material is as good as Ambrose Bierce’s word-craft, such trickery is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the drama.

I should admit that I have a more than passing interest in Ambrose Bierce, since I toiled in the archives and on battlefields near and far researching the wartime career of Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce during the Late Unpleasantness. It is a curious fact that, as influential as that era was on the author and as famous as his war fiction is, no one before had hitherto taken an accurate in depth look at his military service and his role in those momentous historical events. To be sure, many professors of American Literature have expounded on “Almighty God Bierce,” and their efforts are by no means to be denigrated; but the craft of History is not the craft of Literature; Biography is their illegitimate offspring, which must be handled with care

But I digress; for now, suffice it to say, I highly recommend Mr. Miller’s dramatic readings of Bierce. Another selection from Bierce’s work is on a CD called “A Civil War Trinity,” which feature three non-fiction pieces, one of which is Bierce’s “What I Saw of Shiloh,” also through American Listeners Theatre; unfortunately, this audio is out of print. However, a newer edition of Bierce’s fiction and non-fiction works on audio has been put together called, TELLING TALES OF CIVIL WARRIORS, and at three hours plus narration, there is more than enough for you to listen to if you would traverse the Civil War battlefields with Lt. Bierce from Nashville, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama. It is available through Amazon’s subscriptions service Audible.

If you are not ready to listen to three hours of Bierce quite yet, “A Bit of Chickamuaga” is available as a free sample from ALT via Audible. This particular quote is familiar to readers of my bio of Bierce, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, from my chapter on Bierce’s role in that fight.

If you prefer the pictorial medium, be aware that several of Bierce’s war stories have been rendered into film over the years and while some versions are very good, by my lights I think the best rendition of them was not made by some big Hollywood Studio, with star-studded cast (no doubt they were too busy, then as now, filming car chases) but rather was made on a rather meager budget in France in 1962, and directed by Robert Enrico.

Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has scarcely any spoken word to tell the tale. It was later edited for American television and broadcast on the Twilight Zone in black and white in 1964. The film not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but an Oscar as well.  Unfortunately, the original 28 minute French cut of the film is virtually unobtainable on YouTube now; mostly what you get is the version edited for American TV.  Amazon Prime now offers a version of it which I have yet to watch, so I can’t say whether they went back to the original French color print or did the TZ B&W edition of it.  Fortunately, his other two Bierce masterpieces Chickamauga and The Mocking Bird are easily accessible on YouTube.

Now, if your taste does not run to grainy old French shorts (or at least ones where they keep their clothes on), I refer you to a modern musical version of the story by a group called Babybird, who have put the visual story to their song “Unloveable.”  The look of this video is authentic and could easily have been shot in Tennessee or northern Alabama.  It was actually shot in Herts, England, however: Babybird is a British group!

The music video was directed by Johnny Depp and if this is a sample of his directing ability, we can only hope he switches to behind the camera very soon. The “Unloveable” music video is available on YouTube.

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
If you like uncanny tales of the Civil War, needless to say, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is your cup of tea.  Sadly, no one has seen fit to turn it into audio or video yet, but I’m open to suggestions!
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
For the full story of Ambrose Bierce’s experiences with war and death, and the Civil War, go to Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.