The Burning of Darien

About a year or so ago, I was observing a chat group discussion of Russell Duncan’s edition of the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, Blue Eyed Child of Fortune.  I’m a big fan of book discussions, where individuals read a book according to a schedule and gather (actually or virtually) to discuss it along the way.  In this case I was only observing because I had previously read the book and don’t like to participate when I’m not reading along with the group.  I think it’s distracting to the other participants because it’s difficult for me not to allow the fact that I have already finished the book color my comments.  Anyway, there was a sort of throwaway comment in the discussion concerning a controversial incident and its fallout that prompted my e-ssociate Steve and me to do a little detective work in real time after the chat ended.  I’m reopening the case here.

The incident in question was the June 11, 1863 burning of the town of Darien, GA, which was a short trip up the Altamaha River from the coast.  This is the incident depicted in the movie, Glory.  In the film, the principles are Col. Shaw of the 54th MA, Col. James M. Montgomery of the 2nd SC, and General “Harker” (a curious pseudonym for General David Hunter, who ordered the operation: I imagine since the film took a few liberties with the character, the producers decided to change the name).  The expedition degenerated into a liberal foraging (read: looting) operation – Shaw was a willing participant, and would later furnish his HQ with items confiscated from the town.  But when Montgomery, a veteran of "Bleeding Kansas" and an associate of John Brown, ordered the town burned, Shaw’s willing compliance ended.  Though a company of the 54th participated at Montgomery’s order, Shaw was outraged.  Newspapers picked up the story, with Southern journalists labeling the troops involved “vandals”, “wretches”, and “negro thieves” and Northern opposition organs calling them “nigger guerillas”.  Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., the fiancĂ© of Shaw’s sister, Josephine, wrote to the War Dept. complaining of the damage to the experiment of black soldiers that such incidents would produce, while at the same time the Northern opposition touted the burning as evidence of the absurdity of the idea of arming African Americans.

According to Duncan’s introduction to the letters (page 45), Shaw wrote to Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew that the raid disgusted him and that the men of the 54th were cut from better cloth than the “contrabands” in the 2nd SC.  He also complained to Hunter’s adjutant, Lt. Col. Charles Halpine, and here’s where “Urban Legend” kicks in.  According to Duncan, in that letter Shaw

“…complained about the ‘barbarous’ burning of the town.  Montgomery had told Shaw that if Hunter deemed future actions necessary, he would do it, but he did not like it.  It turned out that Montgomery had been acting on his commander’s orders.  Shaw, hoping that Hunter would change his policy, got better than that.  Lincoln too had been reading the papers and felt aggrieved over Hunter’s scorched-earth policy.  Lincoln knew his political life marched with the public opinion of black troops, so he replaced Hunter with a less vindictive general [all emphasis is mine].”

In this brief passage, the author lays out the story that Hunter ordered the burning of the town and as a result was removed from command by Lincoln.  The sources cited for this passage are Luis Emilio’s 1894 history of the 54th MA, "A Brave Black Regiment", pp 43-44, Peter Burchard’s  1965 "One Gallant Rush", pp 110-111, and Garth W. James’s ”The Assault Upon Fort Wagner”, a Wisconsin MOLLUS paper published in 1891, and the Official Records, Series I, Vol. 28 (no part or page noted).  I don’t have James’s paper, but I do have the other three sources here in my library.  I’ll also take a look at Burchard’s sources (Emilio did not use foot or end notes), as well as Edward A. Miller’s 1997 biography of Hunter, "Lincoln's Abolitionist General".  I’ll need more time to pull this all together, but I like how it’s looking so far.  You’ll have to come back tomorrow to judge for yourself.

(When I took on this assignment from Dmitri, I forgot all about this being Memorial Day weekend and all that entails for an 8 year old Cub Scout, and my Pirates season tickets and the fact that they are in the middle of a long home-stand.  Even so, I’ve only missed one day.)