“Do see that my poor, distressed family is taken care of”: The case of Julian M. Burnett, cought up in the war

Before the Civil War, Julian Moses Burnett farmed just outside of Brunswick, Georgia.  According to the 1860 census, 31 year old Julian lived with his wife, Julia, his young daughter (also Julia), and his mother, Margaret.  Julian was a man of some means, with $2,500 in real estate and a $5,000 personal estate.  And as a judge of the inferior court of Glynn County, he was a man of good standing in the community.   By 1863, his family included another young girl (who may have died shortly after birth) and a young boy, Julian Moses, Jr.

As a man of standing, Julian, Sr. was in a position to limit his personal involvement in the war.  Given his position as tax collector and officer of the court, he was able to petition for a deferment from conscription, though from the records this met with mixed results.  However, in June of 1863, he did take up arms when the Federals made raids along the Georgia coast (part of Colonel James Montgomery’s operations that included the burning of Darien, Georgia).  Granted, Julian Burnett was somewhat involved in the war – being a government official and, at least temporarily, being under arms.  But in some ways his war experience might be cast in a Charlie Anderson-style narrative.  Only instead of the Shenandoah Valley as the backdrop, the movie would have Sidney Lanier’s Marshes of Glynn.  But unlike Jimmie Stewart’s “Charlie,” it was Burnett himself, not his son, who would bear the ultimate price of the war.

In the summer of 1864, the war would come to Julian Burnett… and in a hard way.  On August 27, a raiding party from the USS Braziliera swept the area around Brunswick.  One of their objectives was Burnett.  The ship’s log for the day recorded:

At 11:20 Mr. Bennett returned in the whaleboat, having succeeded in capturing Mr. Bernett [sic], postmaster of Mount Pleasant post-office, Glynn County, Ga., and a mail bag containing mail matter for various parts of the Confederate States, which was brought on board and delivered to the captain.

The reason for Burnett’s capture was the allegation he had fired upon Federals during a raid on salt works at Belle Point earlier in the month. The skirmish, after the party was pulling away, resulted in the death of at least one sailor and wounding of four others.  So say the least, the Navy wanted Burnett to answer some questions.

At the time of his capture, Burnett was quick to write an appeal for his release:

To the Citizens of Glynn County:
I am a prisoner on board this blockader, and the commander says Stockwell has made an affidavit that I was the Burnett that fired at the Paul Jones’ boats and killed 2 of their men when the railroad bridge was burnt. Also that Mrs. Golden’s little boy made affidavit that I was one of the citizens that fired at their boats near the salt-works at Belle Point, and that I will be sent to Port Royal in a few days, and that I must clear myself of these charges. I want the citizens to clear me of these false charges through General Jones and General McLaws. I wish some of my friends to go and see the generals commanding without delay, and have such papers as are necessary to clear me of the charges sent by them to the admiral at Port Royal. Stockwell certainly made a mistake in names, and he will make the correction, unless he did it maliciously. And as to the firing on the boats at the salt-works, you all know that it was done by the Confederate cavalry and a few of the militia. The commander of those cavalry and militia will clear me of the statement made by the little boy. My friends, I hope you will lose no time in getting me sent back to my distressed and destitute family.

He added the postscript, “Do see that my poor, distressed family is taken care of, and do all you can for me to come home as quick as possible.”

In support of Burnett, county judges George W. Stockwell and John M. Tison approved a sworn affidavit as evidence.  That was of little use, as Tison was soon a captive at the hands of the Federals too! The witness against Burnett was a boy named Garrett Golden, who’s mother described as “eleven years of age, and from sickness his mind is much affected.”  Sergeant James Postell, 2nd Battalion Georgia Volunteers, also insisted that Golden was “not within 4 miles of the pickets … at the time of the engagement, and therefore could not know who was in the engagement.” Major-General Lafayette McLaws, commanding the District of Georgia, forwarded affidavits, further insisting on Burnett “not being in the Confederate Service.”  Perhaps, with a court review, even under military law, Burnett stood a chance of release.

On September 22, 1864, Major-General Samuel Jones, commanding the Confederate department, sent an inquiry to his Federal counterpart, Major-General John Foster, on the matter, inclosing the affidavits:

I have been informed that you have in your custody a man named J. M. Burnett, a citizen of Georgia, who was seized and carried away from his home by a raiding party from one of the vessels of the blockading squadron off this coast, and that he is to be tried on charges setting forth that he fired into the boats of the Paul Jones and other boats near Belle Point, Ga. I do not know how you regard this man, whether as a Confederate prisoner of war or as a captured citizen, but I claim for him all that is due him in either capacity, and have to request that if proceedings are had against him you will inform me of the result.

Foster responded two days later, indicating he had no direct knowledge of Burnett’s case, referring the matter to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren.  But the Navy was silent on the matter. One facet to consider in Burnett’s case is the ongoing back-and-forth over prisoners. While not directly linked to the Immortal 600 or Federal prisoners held in Charleston, Burnett was among the many topics involving prisoners that the commanders considered.  Perhaps, one might say, the water was muddy by that time.

Burnett died sometime in 1865 while still in South Carolina.  I have no records to indicate the cause of death, but presume he was still in the hands of the Navy at that time at Hilton Head.  He left behind a wife and two young children.  Perhaps some writer could use Burnett as the basis for some romantic, fictionalized story.   But as a historian I see him as an example of so many who were caught up in a war that offered no margins.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 299-300; ORN, Series I, volume 15, page 649.)