The Appalling Raid on Darien
From Hilton Head, South Carolina, Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South addressed a written order to Colonel James Montgomery, commanding the 2nd South Carolina Infantry at St. Simons Island, Georgia on June 9, 1863, regarding the careful employment of the colored troops now serving in the United States Armies. Enclosing a copy of War Department General Orders No. 100 dated April 24th of the same year ensuring his infantry commander's judgment in doing so, provided additional weight in not giving ground to the country's enemies foreign or domestic that there be any violation of the laws and usages of civilized warfare as a palliation which are now threatened against the men and officers of colored commands.
Montgomery was a former Jayhawker, a violent soul gone east after a turbulent tour of free state escapades in the 1850's known as "Bleeding Kansas." Entrusted to command this new entity in the field, the colored troops, and armed with a commander's interpretation on the usages of war as prescribed by the United States War Department, the thin line between destruction to deprive the enemy and unjustifiable misuse of force would be acutely tested.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw stepped off the De Molay that same morning on St. Simons Island and reported for duty with his 54th Massachusetts Infantry; encamped along Pike's Bluff on the inner coast of the island. The following morning, Shaw was hailed by his new brigade commander standing on deck of another steamer having just arrived at the wharf. Within thirty minutes eight companies of the 54th Massachusetts joined five companies of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry embarked on three steamers and a gunboat.
The orders were for a raid along the Georgia coast. Shaw was instructed that the landing would occur fifteen miles above Darien, Georgia and the column of infantry would descend upon it via two road systems, taking all the Negroes that can be found and burning every planter's house along the way. A reasonable order given the latitude of General Orders No. 100; and sound enough for the Massachusetts infantry commander to render cooperation had the operation not taken an unexpected twist.
The boats had run aground along the way and high tide wasn't expected before midnight. It wasn't before 8 o'clock the following morning, June 11, 1863 that the federal troops arrived at the mouth of the Altamaha River. Winding up and down various creeks much time had been lost in the shallow waters, having run aground several times.
The gunboat John Paul, partaking in the expedition, lobbed shells into the plantations that would pop up along the waterway all at the order of Montgomery himself without proper intelligence of any occupying force and devoid of any regard for the women and children still residing in these structures.
About noon, the small hamlet of Darien came within sight. Two sections of Rhode Island artillery accompanying the infantry fired several salvos into the town; but the town appeared deserted with the exception of two white women and two Negroes.
Montgomery gave the order to remove all the furniture and movable property securing it on the boats. Once cleared, he stated in a low voice characteristic to his manner, "I shall burn this town." This disturbed Shaw expressing his utter refusal to have anything to do with it. None of this daunted his superior who was perfectly happy with bearing the entire responsibility. Colonel Montgomery himself left the last of the buildings to his own hands as he set them to the torch personally.
It was a shocking sight for Shaw who could account that his soldiers hadn't received one shot of resistance from the town; all inhabitants, principally women and children had fled on the approach of the federals, many watched their lives drift away in a black pall from a short distance away. One of the shots from the battery upon the helpless town had ripped the skirt right off of one of the women who remained. The former Jayhawker lamely apologized and promised to spare the woman's dwelling, but instead elected not to leave anything unfired.
Once Montgomery's mission of destruction had been accomplished the entire task force embarked on their steamers and departed the area; darkness causing them to lie at anchor until morning. Shaw described the affair as abominable. The useless destruction benefited the army nothing more than replacing their camp stools with refined captured furniture.
What disturbed the commander of the 54th Massachusetts more than anything was the scar this was to leave on the reputation of his own black soldiers. He had thus far served his government with honor and would not degenerate himself into a plunderer or robber. Nothing that his regiment partook in at Darien, Georgia required the slightest amount of courage; he was utterly ashamed of it.
Darien was not a refuge for Confederate hostiles, the federals were not required to fight for possession of it, there was certainly no tactical value to hold onto it and there was obviously no excuse to destroy it. The town's inhabitants had done nothing to deserve the punishment of Montgomery's torches.
There seemed to be no reason at all to it; yet the mindset of Colonel James Montgomery obviously scared that of Colonel Robert Shaw. The prophetic military vigilante while in the act of his own sense of justice said: that the Southerners must be made to feel that this is a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old. Shaw possessed no god-like complex and the idea of it sickened him.
The raid on Darien, Georgia was the last expedition that Colonel Shaw ever cared to accompany such a man on again. Not knowing precisely who back home to speak to about such atrocities, he simply confided in his wife until a plan of action could be derived. Colonel Montgomery would never rise above his current rank and perhaps by notoriety only known for his one day in the sun. Before much could be said about the affair, thirty seven days would pass and Colonel Shaw would be marching against Battery Wagner.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com