150 years ago: Darien, Georgia in ashes

On this day (June 11)  in 1863, Colonel James Montgomery brought a detachment including some of his 2nd South Carolina Volunteers along with companies of Colonel Robert G. Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts to Darien, Georgia.  Like Combahee Ferry and Bluffton before, Darien was soon in flame.

As I’ve offered in the posts leading up to this point, the burning of Darien must be considered in context of several events occurring in the spring of 1863.  Orders by Major-General David Hunter created a force which put the Confederates in an awkward position.  Not so much because of the military force, but because of who happened to be holding the musket.  As authorized under the Emancipation Proclamation, a force of armed blacks – mostly former slaves – entered the Federal order of battle.  That’s one story line which leads to Darien, with two such regiments deployed on a raid.  But I’d say on the surface, that’s old news.  As mentioned before, the Federals dispatched such troops these raids as early as January.

But there’s another story line here to consider.  In January, the 1st South Carolina under Colonel Thomas W. Higginson didn’t burn their way up the St. Mary’s River.  Yet, by June the 2nd South Carolina and Colonel Montgomery were much harsher when going about their business.  Or what I should say is that Montgomery enacted an extreme version of “hard war.”

Several questions revolve around Montgomery’s actions at Darien.  To begin with, was he acting under the guidance given by Hunter?  Consider first the letter Hunter sent to Montgomery on June 9:

It will therefore be necessary for you to exercise the utmost strictness in insisting upon compliance with the instructions herewith sent, and you will avoid any devastation which does not strike immediately at the resources or material of the armed insurrection which we are now engaged in the task of suppressing.

The wording of Hunter’s letter seems, on face at least, three parts deliberate instructions and one part admonishment.  To lend weight to that interpretation, keep in mind the letter was written shortly after the Combahee Ferry raid and the burning of Mr. Nickols choice library (among other things).  Was Hunter giving Montgomery a slap on the wrist?

Consider also Hunter and Montgomery were just not some recent acquaintances.  The two men certainly came into contact was in the winter of 1861-2.  Hunter commanded the Department of Kansas at that time.  One of the formations under his purview was that of James Henry Lane:

Concurrently serving as a senator and a Brigadier-General, Lane formed a brigade of Kansas troops who were mostly Jayhawkers.  Among that force was Colonel James Montgomery:

James Montgomery

Montgomery was with Lane for the sacking and burning of Osceola, Missouri on September 23, 1861.  The burning of Osceola occurred well before Hunter took direct command in Kansas that November (he’d spent a month as General John Fremont’s replacement before getting the Kansas assignment).  But Lane and Montgomery were well known across Missouri for their hard raiding.  One might think Hunter would have something to say about it – be that positive or negative.  But the record is silent.  Most of the correspondence involving Hunter and Lane centers around their dispute as to command arrangements.  Lane wanted to mount a major winter raid into Missouri and Arkansas.  Hunter was fine with that, except HE wanted to command it.

There’s scant indication Hunter expressed any opinion to Lane or Montgomery as to the conduct of war.  But there’s plenty of evidence to draw a logical line between Osceola and Darien.  Yesterday I offered comparisons between the burnings of Darien and VMI.  I submit the burnings of the Missouri and Georgia towns are much more closely related.

That said, what if Hunter’s letter on June 9, 1863 was what it appears to be – a gentle slap on the wrist by a commander who, while sympathetic to the notion of breaking the rebels with hard measures, wanted his subordinate to adhere to the conventions (at least until the Confederates committed some transgression).  And at the same time, if we take Shaw’s observation, in letters to his wife, we have Montgomery’s justification for the burning of Darien:  “We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare.”

So was Montgomery acting beyond Hunter’s orders?  Or was he working as an extension of Hunter’s intent?  In that case, was Hunter’s letter a flimsy cover in case those in Washington disapproved of the burning raids?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “150 years ago: Darien, Georgia in ashes

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