“Piracy more outragous than that of Semmes”: Lowell’s response to Darien, Ga.

If you have studied the Civil War for any length and to any depth, you’ll see the threads cross more often than not.  I’ve been writing, here on the blog, for the last few months about activities that occurred 150 years ago in South Carolina and Georgia. But of late I’ve changed focus to events that occurred at the same time here in Virginia and Maryland.  I could easily make the transition back to the Department of the South by mentioning calls for troops to defend Washington.  But the source material provide me a proper, perhaps subtle, way to link the two theaters of war.

On June 26, 1863, Charles Russell Lowell’s battalion of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry guarded the Potomac River fords and covered the crossing at Edwards Ferry.  An important piece to the overall operation, Lowell was at the time in Poolesville, Maryland.  But his mind, at least for a short time, focused on recent events on the Georgia coast.  Concerned about the news he’d read about the burning of Darien, Georgia, Lowell took time to write William Whiting, a Massachusetts politician who was serving as the War Department’s Solicitor.

Dear Sir, – Have you seen in the newspapers (our own and the rebel) the account of the destruction of Darien by our black troops, – a deserted town burned in apparent wantonness? If this were done by order, I cannot think that the effect of such orders has been duly considered.  I know how constantly you have been in favor of employing negroes as soldiers, and how much you have done to aid it, and I write in the hope that, if you find my views just, you may some time help prevent the repetition of such expeditions.

If burning and pillaging is to be the work of our black regiments, no first-rate officers will be found to accept promotion in them, – it is not war, it is piracy more outrageous than that of Semmes.  Without first-rate officers (and even with them) expeditions in which pillaging is attempted by order will infallibly degenerate into raids in which indiscriminate pillaging will be the rule, and, instead of finding ourselves at the end of the summer with an army of disciplined blacks, we shall have a horde of savages not fit to fight alongside of our white troops, if to fight at all.  Public opinion is not yet decided in favor of black troops; it is merely suspended, in order to see the experiment tried. I do not believe it can be made favorable to their employment if it sees only such results as these:  unfavorable public opinion will still further increase the difficulty of getting good officers, – and so on ad infinitum.

Of the absolute right and wrong of the case, I say nothing, – and of the effect upon the black race, – for those are outside questions; but in a military point of view, I think the net result of Darien expeditions will be against us. Expeditions to help off negroes and to interfere with corn crops are too important a mode of injuring the rebels to be neglected : if made by well-disciplined blacks, kept well in hand, they could be carried far into the interior and made of great service; but troops demoralized by pillage and by the fear of retaliation, which would be the natural consequence of such pillage, will not often venture out of sight of gunboats.  I have done what I could for the coloured regiments by recommending the best officers of my acquaintance for promotion in them, and I was very sorry to see that one Company of our Fifty-Fourth Regiment (in which I had taken an especial interest) was at Darien: I can fancy the feelings of the officers. This is written in haste, and is written loosely, but I wanted to call your attention to the matter….

The direct connection between Lowell and Colonel Robert G. Shaw shows through in this letter.  But clearly Lowell’s response was not predicated only on the honor of his close friend, or simply to impress Josephine Shaw.

To the question about legitimate military targets, Lowell’s views were not far removed from that expressed by Major-General David Hunter, in instructions to Colonel James Montgomery, who’d led the Darien raid.  Now I’ll avoid the “then where did this get out of hand and who is to blame?” line of thought for now.  Instead would call attention to how Lowell equated the burning of Darien to actions by Confederate commerce raiders.

And consider the audience of Lowell’s letter.  Whiting, in his role as Solicitor, had published a lengthy examination of the legal grounds to wage war upon the Confederacy, titled The War Powers of the President and the Legislative Powers of Congress in Relation to Rebellion, Treason, and Slavery.  Whiting argued those engaged in rebellion may not be afforded legal rights and privileges granted under the Constitution.  Instead he reasoned the government was released from the obligations “… to respect the rights to life, liberty, or property of its enemy, because the constitution makes it the duty of the President to prosecute war against them in order to suppress rebellion and repel invasion.”

With respect to private property, Whiting went as far to say, “… the blowing up or demolition of buildings in a city, for the purpose of preventing a general conflagration, would be an appropriation of them to public use.”  Whiting concluded, “… the government have [sic] the right to appropriate to public use private property of every description; that “public use” may require the employment or the destruction of such property….”

So if we follow Whiting’s logic, was the burning of Darien was a legal, legitimate military action?

Lowell also spent considerable time on the worry the black regiments – the U.S. Colored Troops – would not gain acceptance by the general public.  Was that concern born of political goals?  Or is this derived of the abolitionist cause?  Or is this a military officer considering the needs of the front lines?

(Citations from:

Edward Waldo Emerson, Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell: Captain Sixth United States Cavalry, Colonel Second Massachusetts Cavalry, Brigadier-general United States Volunteers, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1907, pages 265-7.

William Whiting, The War Powers of the President: And the Legislative Powers of Congress in Relation to Rebellion, Treason and Slavery, Boston: John L. Shorey, 1862, pages 20,33, and 52.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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