A local graduate student became convinced during his research into Athens’ role in the Civil War that the town has since lost its sense of “place” in history, something he hopes to revive by sharing his work with the public.

Chris Paysinger, a graduate student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, will read a paper Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church Rogers Center. The reading is a practice run for presenting his paper Feb. 2 and 3 to the Alabama Association of Historians at Jacksonville State University.

“It not only will be a good run-through, but also infuse a little bit of interest in Athens’ history—I think it has waned in the last few years,” said Paysinger.

A teacher at Sparkman High School, Paysinger said that Athens lost two of its most valuable links with the past with the deaths of Robert Dunnavant Jr. and Fay Axford, who both took on roles as the county’s unofficial historians, researched and wrote extensively and published several works on the area.

“I think Athens is losing its sense of place, becoming indistinct, because we are becoming a whole lot like other places opposed to what makes us unique and distinguishes us as a town,” he said.

Paysinger is taking his graduate degree in early American history. As part of a Civil War elective funded through a grant from the Gilder Lehrman Institute in New York and taught by Johanna Shields, he was required to write a paper using the “historiography” method.

He had to choose a topic and research it, but under the historiography method, he could not cite previously published works. He had to find as much about the subject in public records or newspapers and draw his own conclusions and postulate his own theories.

He chose as his subject, “how does Athens fit into the Civil War?” He said three out of the seven students in the class are from Limestone County and also wanted to research early Athens. Not being able to cite works such of Axford, Dunnavant or other researchers was a handicap at first.

“First, there were no probate records from the time because the courthouse burned and there are not tons of archival diaries,” he said.

In time, Paysinger zeroed in on the sack of Athens led by Union Col. John Basil Turchin. Born Ivan Vasilovitch Turchinov in 1820 near St. Petersburg, Russia, Turchin invaded Athens on May 2, 1962, and told his men, “I see nothing for two hours.” Reports say that during those two hours, his men raped a black woman, scared a pregnant white woman who miscarried and died, and took or destroyed more than $54,000 in property, including about 200 Bibles, which soldiers trampled.

Turchin subsequently faced a court-martial. Paysinger was able to access a transcript of the legal proceedings.

“And then information began to come in,” he said. “Everywhere I looked there was information. It seemed to fall out of the sky. It came from northern newspapers and official records of the Civil War.”

Paysinger even found a song about Turchin’s wartime exploits in a journal about Russian history.

“Basically, the paper deals with how the Union military policy affected the citizens of Athens during the war,” he said. “Early in the war, there was a conciliatory policy toward the south by Lincoln and his generals. They figured if they treated them good they would regain their Unionists sentiments and come back into the Union. What happens in Athens, in Athens is the Lincoln administration almost okaying a ‘hard-war’ policy—to break the secessionists and make them sick of war.

“Buy ’62, Lincoln realized that the conciliatory policy was not working and the South was not coming back into the Union. It was not done to be malicious. It was just a war measure, trying to end the was as soon as he can.”

The Jan. 25 presentation is open to the public and free of charge.

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