WASHINGTON, June 24 (by Karin Zeitvogel for RIA Novosti) – As Americans mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, where more than 7,000 soldiers were killed in three days of fighting in 1863, they will be paying homage to tens of thousands of foreign soldiers, including Russians, who fought and died for a united America.
Civil War photographer Matthew Brady looks over the Gettysburg battlefield, where at least 7,000 soldiers died between July 1-3, 1861. (National Archives)
Between a quarter and a third of the 2.75 million men who enlisted to fight in the war between the slave-owning, secessionist southern states, or Confederates, and the abolitionist, industrialized north, or Union, were foreign-born, according to historians.
Foreign soldiers were highly prized in the United States of the 1860s, because they “had served in the Grand Armies of Europe and brought a high level of professionalism to the infant United States Army,” Albert Parry wrote in “The Russian Review” in 1942.
Among them were several hundred Russians, most of whom, like Peter Petroff, an immigrant from St. Petersburg who was “pressed into army service almost as soon as he touched American soil” in 1861, according to the 1996 Museum Gazette, published by the US National Park Service, enlisted to fight for the Union.
Civil War soldiers prepare meals at a company kitchen near “The Wilderness” in northern Virginia, where Russian immigrant Peter Petroff was wounded. (US National Archives)
Petroff’s “commanders were so impressed with his soldierly dedication that they promoted him to corporal, despite the fact that he couldn’t speak a word of English,” the Museum Gazette wrote.
Vladimir Magazinoff, jumped ship in New York, deserting the army of Tsar Alexander II to enlist in a Union artillery regiment.
Russian sailors deserted the ships of Tsar Alexander II to fight in the US Civil War. (National Archives)
Prince Alexander Eristoff “arrived in New York in 1862 and fought with the North for the principles of progress and freedom, although he was the owner of a tremendous estate in his native Georgia in the Caucasus,” Parry wrote.
Temple University scholar Andy Waskie wrote that Russian soldiers fought alongside Italians, Germans, Poles, Algerian Zouaves, Hungarians and soldiers of other origins in the 39th New York Infantry Regiment, also known as the Garibaldi Guard, which fought in the three-day battle of Gettysburg, the deadliest ever on US soil.
Artist Frank Vizetelly’s depiction of the Garibaldi Guard during a troop review in 1861. (Library of Congress)
But the best known of all the Russian-born soldiers who fought in the US Civil War was John Basil Turchin, the son of a major in the tsar’s army, and himself a veteran of the Crimean War, who immigrated to the United States in 1856.
John B. Turchin, a Russian general in the US Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons)
Born Ivan Vasilevich Turchaninoff, Turchin changed his name because Americans had such difficulty pronouncing the multi-syllabic Russian name. He quickly assimilated into life in Chicago, where he settled with his wife, Nadine.
Three months after Confederate troops fired the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861 he was commissioned as a colonel in the Union Army.
Fort Sumter in South Carolina, where the first shots of the US Civil War were fired. (National Archives)
In September 1861, when the 19th Illinois regiment that Turchin led suffered a terrible accident – a bridge collapse that killed 25 men and injured 105 others – Nadine, who followed her husband into battle just as she had followed him to America, “tore her skirt into bandages and ministered to the wounded,” wrote Parry in The Russian Review.
Turchin was always referred to as a Russian general in the American Civil War. Even when he won praise from the media and military officials for a booklet of military drills that he published, his Russian roots were highlighted. The booklet won praise for its “Russian methods combined with American patriotism,” and it so impressed the top brass in the Union army that they put a fourth regiment under Turchin’s command.
A Civil War battery on drill. John Turchin’s pamphlet on drills won him praise in the media and from military brass. (National Archives)
Turchin was also dogged by controversy during the war, particularly after troops under his command committed “some unsoldierly things” when they recaptured the town of Athens, Alabama, in May 1862 from Confederate soldiers who had routed one of Turchin’s brigades, reportedly shooting “nearly all” the Union soldiers who “fell into their hands,” according to Parry.
On learning “that Athens had been sacked by the Mad Cossack’s troops,” Gen. Don Carlos Buell ordered Turchin arrested. After a court martial, he was dismissed from the army.
General Don Carlos Buell ordered then Colonel John Turchin to be court-martialed after the “sack of Athens, Ala. in 1862. (National Archives)
But his soldiers and civilian supporters, including several leading journalists of the day, rallied round him, urging President Abraham Lincoln to revoke the court martial and reinstate Turchin.
President Abraham Lincoln reinstated John Turchin in the military and promoted him to brigadier general. (National Archives)
Lincoln went one better, promoting the Russian to the rank of brigadier general and invalidating his court martial.
Part of the Chickamauga, Tenn. battlefield. (National Archives)
Turchin went on to lead troops in key campaigns in the south, including at Chickamauga, in Tennessee, a battle about which he wrote a book after the war ended with Union victory in 1865.
John Turchin’s obituary in a 1901 edition of the New York Times. (nytimes.com)
Turchin returned to civilian life after the war. He died in an insane asylum in Illinois in 1901, largely forgotten for both his achievements and his controversies, and is buried at a cemetery in Mound City, Illinois, with his wife, who, just as she had done in life, followed Turchin into death in 1904.
The headstone of John Turchin and his wife, Nadine, in Illinois. (findagrave.com)