Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Burning of Darien: Festival will recall one of war's most controversial moments

Scene from the movie "Glory"

By summer 1863, coastal towns in the Deep South knew that where the Union army was going, emancipation of slaves was soon to follow.

That fact permeated society in Darien, Ga., where rice was king and slave labor served it. Most of the town’s 500 souls had fled before June 11, frightened by the Federal blockade and the deployment of African-American troops on nearby St. Simons Island.

On that day, the town, its buildings perched on tabby foundations, was vacant.

It held little strategic value to the Union, but Col. James Montgomery, commanding the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, supposedly believed it was a safe haven for blockade runners.

Montgomery -- virulently opposed to slavery -- apparently had another reason for shelling, looting and burning Darien, leaving only a few buildings standing among the charred ruins.

“There was not much justice for burning Darien,” said Steven Smith, site manager for Fort King George Historic Site in Darien. “He wanted to make a political statement. Here was a town built on the backs of slaves.”

Darien’s destruction by two black regiments caused a howl of protest across the South and even in newspapers in the North. Those favoring emancipation were split on whether the act was barbarity or a necessary evil as it became clearer to many that the Civil War was about slavery.

Smith is among local leaders who launched a “Burning of Darien” website and Facebook page as a way to elevate knowledge of the incident and increase tourism in McIntosh County, long one of the poorest in Georgia.

Lectures about the 150th anniversary and the recent opening of a related museum culminate this Saturday (June 15, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) with a daylong festival and living history in the city better known these days for its seafood fleet and as a gateway to the Golden Isles and retirement communities.

Among re-enactors that will be on hand is a Charleston, S.C., contingent that portrays the famed  54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which also participated in the burning of Darien.

The incident is featured in the 1989 movie “Glory.”

Col. James Montgomery
Montgomery ordered Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th  Massachusetts to participate. While Shaw didn’t mind the looting to help resupply his troops, he opposed setting the town to torch. He apparently relented under threat of court-martial.

In a letter to his wife, Annie, a couple months before he died during his regiment’s assault on Battery Wagner near Charleston, Shaw gave this description of Montgomery:

“The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were, that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old.”

At the same time, the colonel said Montgomery was a “conscientious man” and believed he was faithfully executing his duty.

Shaw further wrote his wife, “Besides my own distaste for this barbarous sort of warfare, I am not sure that it will not harm very much the reputation of black troops and of those connected with them.”

After the war, the Shaw family worked diligently to exonerate their loved one’s reputation by saying he did not order Darien’s burning.

Col. Robert G. Shaw
Montgomery was an extreme character, even among abolitionists, according to historian Colin Woodward, archivist for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

Historians debate whether Montgomery was acting under orders of Gen. David Hunter, commander of the Union’s department in the region. Hunter is known for an unauthorized 1862 edit emancipating slaves.

But it’s clear where Montgomery, a Kansas Jayhawker, stood on slavery.

“He had this religious Old Testament idea of an eye for eye and I hate slavery and I will do whatever it takes, even if this town is undefended,” Woodward told the Picket. “It’s almost like if John Brown had not been hanged and went into the army. That’s how this guy operated.”

Woodward, who also authors the Southern Historian blog, said the burning of Darien foreshadowed further Union efforts to take the war to the Southern people, and not just at the battle lines.

“I call Montgomery a Sherman in miniature,” Woodward said. “This is how the Union is going to prosecute the war further out.”

Buddy Sullivan, a historian in coastal Georgia, has given lectures about Darien and he is quick to point out that the raid occurred well before Sherman’s March to the Sea.

He told the Picket that the Burning of Darien initiative might help get more tourists off Interstate 95, which cuts through McIntosh County, off the road and into its communities.

Darien in recent years has gotten on the “train of progress” in promoting itself for eco-heritage tourism,” Sullivan said. This year’s events are a way to reach people “who haven’t even heard of this place.”

Buddy Sullivan
“This area has a lot of natural beauty and history,” Sullivan said. “We want people to come back and take a second look.”

Organizers of events have attempted to have an expanded view of the burning of Darien, to include the story of slavery.

“We are trying to draw a more diverse element,” said Sullivan. “We don’t just want Civil War buffs. It may be unpleasant history for some, but it is history.”

The 2nd South Carolina Volunteers was largely comprised of freed slaves, while the 54th Massachusetts had many freedmen and business professionals.

Steven Smith told the Picket the 54th Massachusetts was in the area to recruit freed slaves, destroy Southern crops and take out Confederate assault works.

Darien was slow to rebound from the war, and a now-gone timber industry for decades replaced the rice-based economy.

Like Sullivan, Smith said eco-heritage tourism is beginning to take off.

“It is a pretty town, a quintessential Southern town, with live oaks,” he said. “It is a perfect town for recreational boating.”

The Burning of Darien has provided educational opportunities and this week a museum opened at the town’s Trailhead Center.

Colin Woodward
Scholars have long debated the significance of the event and what it meant to the reputation of African-American troops, led by white officers. Hence, Shaw’s concerns about the image of his troops following the “wanton destruction.”

Historian Keith Wilson, in an article about Union officers who waged war in the region, has said when it came to Darien, “condemnation was not a universal response” in the North.

Woodward said there was varying reactions to the event.

“In the abolitionist movement it created a divide between those saying the ends justify the means and those thinking it was going too far, we don’t need to do this.”

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