The Burning of Darien Part II

On pages 43 and 44 of his book Emilio, who was an officer of the 54th, says that Shaw wrote two “official” letters on the incident, one to Governor Andrew and the other to Halpine.  The Halpine letter is reproduced, and Duncan’s summary is accurate, though Shaw did not refer to Hunter by name.  Then Emilio states:  “It is not known to the writer that any answer was vouchsafed to this letter; but Colonel Shaw afterward ascertained that Colonel Montgomery acted in accordance with General Hunter’s orders.”  Shaw lived for another month, and it’s possible that he told Emilio of his discovery directly.  But Emilio does not say how Shaw ascertained that Hunter issued the order.

On pages 110 and 111 of “One Gallant Rush”, Burchard discusses Shaw’s letter to his wife in which the Colonel described the Darien expedition as an “abominable job”.  He also summarizes the letter to Halpine and quotes some of the text of the Andrew letter.  He makes no mention of Shaw learning of any involvement of Hunter in ordering the burning of the town.  But he does say:

Lincoln heard about the raid and he didn’t like it.  It was the last in a series of straws that would break the back of the President’s patience.

Hunter, protesting, was removed soon after.  Lincoln, who was capable of writing and speaking plainly, answered Hunter’s protestations with a masterful display of double talk.  He wrote that the change in commanders was made ‘for no reasons which convey any imputation upon your own energy, efficiency and patriotism; but for causes which seemed sufficient, while they were in no degree incompatible with the respect and esteem in which I have always held you as a man and an officer.”

I think perhaps Burchard could reasonably conclude that Lincoln was double talking if in fact Hunter’s removal was a result of Lincoln having read of the Darien expedition in the newspapers, feeling aggrieved over Hunter’s scorched-earth policy, realizing his political life marched with the public opinion of black troops, and desiring to replace Hunter with a less vindictive commander.  But the problem with this notion that Hunter was relieved of command as a result of the burning of Darien, even as a “last straw”, can be found on the very first page of text (page 3) of Series I, Vol. 28, Part II of the ORs.  While these two documents don’t address the issue of Hunter’s involvement, they certainly cast light on any role Darien may have played in the removal of Hunter from command of the Department of the South.

            “General Orders No. 46

            Hdqrs. Dept. of the South

            Hilton Head, Port Royal, S.C., June 12, 1863

Maj. Gen. David Hunter, commanding Department of the South, hereby announces that he has been temporarily relieved of the command of the department, and ordered to report to the Adjutant-General, U.S. Army, for special service…

Note that this is dated one day after the Darien incident, hardly enough time for Lincoln to form an opinion on the final straw based on newspaper accounts and public uproar.  But wait, there’s more.

            “General Orders No. 47

            Hdqrs. Dept. of the South

            Hilton Head, Port Royal, S.C., June 12, 1863

I. By direction of the President, as announced in special orders from the headquarters of the Army, dated Washington, June 3, 1863, the undersigned [Q. A. Gillmore] hereby assumes command of the Department of the South.

II. All orders and regulations established by Major-General Hunter, and now in operation, will remain in full force until otherwise ordered.”

So, not only was Hunter officially removed on June 12, one day after Darien, he was notified of his removal on June 3, eight days before Darien.  As an aside, the “less vindictive” general chosen to replace Hunter was the same man who would employ the 54th MA in the performance of the manual labor needed to establish “The Swamp Angel”, which would be used to bombard the city of Charleston.

I think this pretty firmly establishes that the actions at Darien played no role in the removal of Hunter from command of the Department of the South.

But let’s get back to the question of Hunter’s involvement.  On June 18, Shaw wrote his mother that “I have not yet discovered if Co. Montgomery has Hunter’s orders to burn every thing, but expect to hear soon from Hilton Head.”  On June 20, he wrote his father:

“Col. Montgomery returned from Hilton Head, this morning, bringing us news of the capture of the ram ‘Fingal’.

He found General Gilmor very friendly and anxious to second him in every way, with the exception of the burning business – so that is satisfactorily settled.  Montgomery tells me he acted entirely under orders from Hunter, and was at first very much opposed to them himself, but finally changed his mind.”

It seems that by the 20th Shaw had still not received any official word that Hunter ordered the burning of Darien, and this was the last reference to this issue in the letters.  In addition, the story that Montgomery told Shaw appears odd considering two descriptions of Montgomery noted in Duncan’s book.  One is by Shaw in a June 20, 1863 letter to Charles Russell Lowell, in which he said that Montogmery “is a bush-whacker – in his fighting, and a perfect fanatic in other respects.  He never drinks, smokes or swears, & considers that praying, shooting, burning & hanging are the true means to put down the Rebellion.”  The other is from John Brown of Pottawatomie and Harper’s Ferry fame, and his 1848 statement can be found in one of Duncan’s notes on page 346:

“Captain Montgomery is the only soldier I have met among the prominent Kansas men.  He understands my system of warfare exactly.


I think that at best we can say that Hunter may have given orders to Montgomery to burn the town of Darien, but that there is no proof other than Emilio’s word and Montgomery’s tale - which may be the basis for Emilio’s word.  But the story of Darien playing a role in the relief of Hunter can be safely classified as an “Urban Legend”.