An Interesting Fellow

Orders had come down to Brigadier General Ivan Vasilyevich Turchaninov to pull his brigade out of line and begin a withdrawal, which would eventually include the entire army corps. This was probably none too soon, as ammunition was getting low and the enemy had many more troops on the field. As he was leading his men down the road in two columns, through an area strewn with the dead and dying of the previous day’s fighting, his Corps commander rode up and told him that a large enemy force had gotten in their rear and was advancing through the woods toward an open field in their front. This force had to be dealt with, as it threatened the entire army.

Turchaninov drew up his four regiments and, positioning himself in the center, drew his saber (or waved his hat, by one account) and said something to the effect of “My prigade, charge payonet; give’em hell, G….. D….’em!”* The brigade hit the surprised enemy column in the flank and smashed them, rolling up the entire line. In the process, Turchaninov’s horse was shot from under him , but he was unharmed. The enemy was scattered and around 400 prisoners were taken.1

The above is not a scene from the Crimean War or one of the many other battles fought by the Russian Empire  in the ninteeth Century. In fact, this fight took place on September 20, 1863 near the banks of the West Chickamauga Creek in northern Georgia. The enemy, rather than Turks, was Liddell’s Division of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Turchaninov is better known to American Civil War buffs as John Basil Turchin.

Turchaninov was born into a wealthy Don Cossack family and, as a young man, attended the Imperial Military School in St. Petersburg. He served as a Colonel of Guards in the Russian Army and saw action in Hungary and the Crimea. However, like many educated young Russians, he chafed under the autocracy of the Tsarist regime. He came in contact with others who advocated democratic change in Russia and became a sympathizer to their cause. After the end of the Crimean War, he took his new bride and went AWOL, taking off for England and then to America. The couple ended up in Illinois, where they crossed paths with people like George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln and a little guy named Grant.

Turchaninov’s democratic ideals made him an enemy of slavery and led him to be a radical Republican. When the Civil War began, he did not hesitate to seek a commission in the Union Army. On June 19, 1861, he was commissioned a colonel with the 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.  With his strong abolitionist leanings and a tendency to say exactly what he thought, Turchaninov frequently ran afoul of his superiors. His habit of putting the welfare of his soldiers ahead of army protocol also caused him problems. So, when his regiment was involved in the so-called ‘Rape of Athens’ Alabama, which seems to have mostly consisted of some theft and vandalism, while the colonel was off surveying possible defensive positions in the area of the town, ( Certainly it was small potatoes compared to events that would transpire on both sides later in the war)  Major General Don Carlos Buell used the complaints of the townspeople to rid himself of the troublesome little Russian, and courtmartialed Turchaninov. Deprived of his commission, the colonel returned to Chicago and found that he was widely regarded as a hero and had, indeed, been promoted to Brigadier General by President Lincoln.

This was only the beginning of Turchaninov’s adventures with the Union Army of the Cumberland, which is told in John Basil Turchin and the Fight to Free the Slaves, by Stephen Chicoine. After reading this, I was intrigued enough to follow up by reading the General’s own words in Chickamauga which is of course, about that battle, told in a first-hand account. I enjoyed both books immensely, however, the Generals’s book is essentially a photocopy of the 1888 volume and on at least a third of the pages, the first word or so of each line is missing. It looks as if someone was holding the original down on a copier and failed to check to see if a good copy was made. It is still pretty easy to follow, however.

This was an interesting reading project which combined a couple of my interests. Ken Burns once noted that the Civil War period was full of interesting characters. General Turchin was definitely one of them.

*1Chicoine, John Basil Turchin and the Fight to Free the Slaves, p. 154. Westport, CT, 2003.





2 responses to “An Interesting Fellow”

  1. Chuck Critchfield Avatar
    Chuck Critchfield

    Jim – GENERALS IN BLUE is not quite as kind to good old Ivan over the Alabama incident.

  2. Jim Barnes Avatar
    Jim Barnes

    Probably written by one of Buell’s people! 🙂

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