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I Had Rather Die — Rape in the Civil War
an Excerpt

By Kim Murphy

In Alabama, several charges were brought against Russian immigrant, Colonel J.B. Turchin, of the 19th Illinois Regiment for neglect of duty in "the sack of Athens." Among the incidents, a group of his command went into the house of Milly Ann Clayton. They destroyed clothing and bed clothes. After threatening to shoot Milly Ann, they proceeded to the kitchen and attempted to rape a black servant.

Another squad of Turchin's soldiers plundered John F. Malone's house and law office. A part of this brigade went to Malone's plantation, where they "quartered in the negro huts for weeks, debauching the females." To pretend all of the women went willingly would be turning a blind eye to reality. And at the house of widow Charlotte Hine "a colored girl" was raped.[1] Private Ayer Bowers was identified as the rapist. Because the victim had been raped in front of her mistress, she had a white witness.[2]

Major General O. M. Mitchel, in charge of the brigade, filed a report with Secretary of War E. M. Stanton. He complained that his line extended more than 400 miles. "The most terrible outrages—robberies, rapes, arson, and plundering—are being committed by lawless brigands and vagabonds connected with the army." He went on to state that "wherever I am present in person all is quiet and orderly. ... I beg authority to control these plunderers by visiting upon their crimes the punishment of death."[3] Apparently, Stanton granted Mitchel's request, but nothing changed.

Colonel J. S. Norton of the 21st Ohio Regiment submitted a deposition to the Committee on the Conduct of the War: "I charge Colonel Turchin, and the officers and soldiers of his command, with having committed outrages and depredations upon the people of Limestone county... with committing rapes upon servant girls in the presence of their mistresses."[4] The committee took no action. Because Norton had violated normal military protocol, he was relieved of command. Formal charges were filed against Turchin.

Charlotte Hine testified on behalf of her unnamed servant. Normally Charlotte had been unafraid of soldiers coming to her house. She often gave them milk for which they offered to pay. On May 3, 1862, a few soldiers came to her house and stole some meat from her smokehouse. The following day, three men returned and "at once commenced indecent familiarities with them [the slaves], calling the women, `Sissy,' and throwing their arms around them, running their hands into their bosoms." The soldiers rummaged through some drawers and searched the house before going outside, where they went after the women again. According to Charlotte, "all had left the place, except for one woman and her daughter, the latter about 14 years of age." The girl held a baby, and one of the soldiers told her to put the child down. He said, "I want to use you." When the girl's mother screamed for help from Charlotte, the girl cried for her mother. The soldier threatened, "God damn your mammy, we will have her next."

Charlotte ran into the yard and "there before me a horrid outrage was committed on her person by the man, and afterward the outrage was repeated by one of the others, but not by the third man." As for the girl's mother, "I locked [her] up in a closet, but let her out to escape them, and she ran away into the thicket. They tried to hunt her up."

Another officer stated, "Col. Turchin asked me if I had the man under arrest. I replied ... I would not arrest one of my men on negro testimony."[5] Private Bowers, the soldier accused of raping the girl, was sent to the guardhouse for two weeks before returning to duty.[6] The second man seems to have escaped charges completely.

A New York Times article denied any wrongdoing: "In General Mitchel's invasion of Alabama and Georgia, one of his officers, Turchin, allowed his men to sack a village ... and to ravish a whole seminary of young ladies! The whole foundation of this story is this: Our men captured the village." After a battle, the soldiers began to burn houses. "On the investigation before the Court-martial, the only woman injured was a negro prostitute, who was thought not to have been especially unwilling. So much for dreadful outrage."[7]

The reporter first resorted to propaganda, then turned around and pretended that no women had been raped. The single case that made it to the court-martial records was dismissed entirely as being brought by a prostitute. Had the reporter read the real record he might have thought differently, but the truth of the matter is that few during the era treated the rape of black or poor women as a matter of any importance.

Not only did some officers ignore the rapes their men committed, some allegedly perpetrated the act themselves. A Maine volunteer wrote in his diary from Virginia:

At this place occurred a dastardly outrage, if [the] report be true. Colonel Byles, of the 99th Penn. and his ADJT [adjutant] made their headquarters at a farm house near by occupied by two women alone. They made infamous proposals to them, which being refused, these miserable, cowardly skulks threatened to burn the house unless their demands were complied with. So to save their home, and themselves from being turned out into the "bleak December," they submitted.

Had this outrage been the work of privates, they would probably have dangled from the nearest tree in very short order, Col Byles consenting thereto. But there may be another side to the story, women are not all of them always paragons of virtue and these innocent creatures may have been "as deep in the mud as Col Byles was in the mire." As who shall say?

One thing we did know, Old Byles, was a drunken old fool and one never knows when an officer keeps in this condition, what crazy and dirty ideas may creep into his brain.[8]

The private responded in a typical period style by questioning the women's reputations, but not only was Colonel Edwin Ruthin Biles never investigated for improper conduct or possible rape, he mustered out on July 1, 1865, as a brigadier general.


  1. OR, series 1, vol. 16, part 2, 273-275.
  2. George C. Bradley and Richard L. Dahlen, From Conciliation to Conquest: The Sack of Athens and the Court-Martial of Colonel John B. Turchin (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 270.
  3. OR, Series 1, vol. 10, part 2, 204.
  4. "Charges against Mitchel," Press (PA), July 23, 1862.
  5. National Archives RG 153, file KK 122.
  6. Bradley and Dahlen, 270.
  7. "Some Thoughts about the Army," New York Times, September 13, 1863.
  8. John Haley papers, December 10, 1864, diary entry, Dyer Library Archives and Special Collections, Saco Maine.

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Excerpt is Copyright Kim Murphy 2014.
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