By MARK F. EHLERS June 11, 2013, 12:41 pm
Near sunrise on June 11, 1863, Confederate outposts noticed a flotilla of ships rounding Doboy Sound and steaming up the Altamaha River toward Darien, Ga. Settled on a picturesque bluff above the river in 1736, Georgians had once known Darien as a thriving port and financial center. During the early 19th century, however, Savannah absorbed most of Darien’s economic activity; by the time of the Civil War, a visitor to Darien could still see slaves loading timber and cotton at the wharves, but he or she would more likely notice the town’s quaint colonial charm.
As soon as the Confederate pickets realized the ships were full of Union troops making for Darien, they headed back into town to spread the alarm. The few hundred souls who called Darien home grabbed their most valuable possessions and fled with their livestock and slaves to a settlement known as the Ridge, about three miles from town.
If the Confederate pickets had taken the time to examine the transport ships even closer, they would have seen black faces staring back at them. Eight companies of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (composed of Northern free blacks newly arrived from training in Massachusetts) and five companies of the Second South Carolina (composed of former slaves from South Carolina), along with a section of Rhode Island artillery — perhaps 800 men all together — had left their base at St. Simon’s Island the day before. As the transport ships proceeded upriver, the two gunboats acting as escorts occasionally lobbed shells into suspicious-looking farmhouses or wooded areas. They made slow going against the tricky current and it was nearly 3 p.m. before they finally approached Darien.
Two very different officers led the raid on Darien. As the senior officer, 49-year-old Col. James Montgomery served as both the commander of the 2nd South Carolina regiment and the overall expedition commander. Montgomery provides historians with a study in contradiction: his contemporaries described him as a quiet, charismatic and deeply religious man who forbade alcohol and swearing in his regiment; at the same time, they knew him to be an abolitionist zealot hardened in brutal guerrilla fighting in the antebellum Kansas-Missouri border conflict.
One officer who Montgomery initially impressed was the commander of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw, 26 years old, was the son of prominent Boston abolitionists, but he only reluctantly accepted the colonelcy of Massachusetts’s first regiment of black soldiers. Once in command, though, he devoted himself to proving that his African-American soldiers could fight just as well as any white ones.
As the gunboats fired at likely targets in and around Darien, Montgomery and Shaw supervised the unloading of their units. The infantrymen assembled in the town square and set up a cordon around the outskirts of town. A quick search revealed nothing in Darien but a few “crackers and paupers,” according to an after-action report, who fled upon seeing the black soldiers. Satisfied that the town was deserted, Montgomery gave orders to remove all public and private property of value.
Shaw reluctantly issued the orders, then watched as groups of his soldiers scattered throughout the town breaking into homes, shops and warehouses. Soon they began to return carrying their confiscated goods with them. One of Shaw’s officers remembered his soldiers bringing back “sofas, pianos, chairs, mirrors, carpets, bedstands, carpenters’ tools, coopers’ tools, books, law books, account books … china sets, tin ware, earthen ware …” Some men returned with chickens, pigs, cows and even a few liberated slaves. On the riverfront, one company removed lumber from the dock warehouses while another brought in 80 bales of cotton from a schooner anchored several miles upriver. Then, with the plunder loaded onboard the waiting transports, Montgomery turned to Shaw and quietly gave orders to burn the town.
Horrified, Shaw informed his commander that he would not give any such orders to his unit (those who have seen the film “Glory” will recall this confrontation as a pivotal moment in the story). Montgomery was insistent. “Southerners,” he explained coldly, “must be made to feel that this is a real war.” Besides, he continued, the Confederate Congress officially regarded all black soldiers as outlaws. As such, the traditional laws of warfare did not apply to them. Despite Shaw’s protests, Montgomery was the senior officer, and he gave the orders himself. Using rosin pitch from the warehouses, soldiers set fires in several parts of town before hurrying back to the transport vessels. Montgomery set the last fire himself. Aided by the wind, the conflagration quickly engulfed the entire town.
The residents of Darien returned the next day to find their town reduced to a “plain of ashes and blacked chimneys.” Every building, with the exception of the local Methodist church, was gone.
The burning of Darien troubled many officers of the 54th Massachusetts. Most had joined the unit to prove that African-Americans could make efficient soldiers, and were dismayed at seeing them reduced to vandals. Though the historical record does not tell us for certain, it seems reasonable to assume that as Shaw watched Darien burn, he began actively looking for an opportunity to get his regiment into a “real” fight where they could prove their valor. A little over a month later, the men of the 54th Massachusetts would have that chance at a place called Fort Wagner.