Vindicating Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th


With the 150th anniversary of the burning of Darien, GA approaching one local historian hopes to vindicate Col. Robert Gould Shaw of any responsibility.  We all know the scene in Glory when Shaw orders his men to torch the town only after the threat of court-martial by Col. James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.  Montgomery and General Hunter play the perfect villains in the movie, which ultimately leads to a transfer for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from hard labor to combat and glory at the base of Battery Wagner in July 1863.  It’s hard to know what McIntosh County historian Buddy Sullivan has planned for the commemoration beyond reminding his community that the raid did not take place during Sherman’s March of 1864 and that Shaw was indeed following orders.

Most of us know about this little incident from Glory and the movie gets a lot right.  Yes, Shaw disapproved of Montgomery’s order to join his unit and burn Darien.  According to historian Russell Duncan, “Shaw believed the action unjustified and disgraceful, and said he could have assented to it only if they had met Rebel resistance.” (pp. 43-44)  Shaw was concerned about the negative publicity that eventually was reported in northern and southern newspapers.  While it is true that Shaw was forced to follow orders it’s not clear whether noting that Col. Montgomery was also carrying out direct orders from General David Hunter will make it into Sullivan’s upcoming presentation.  Better to have a foil with which to vindicate Shaw.  

It should also be noted that while Shaw clearly spoke out against what happened at Darien that in his accommodations in the Sea Islands he, according to Duncan, “added its furnishings with accent pieces from Darien.” (p. 46)  There is a also a great deal about Shaw’s relationship with and opinion of Montgomery that is obscured owing to the Glory narrative.  For example, when writing to his wife Annie on June 12, 1863, just after the Darien raid, Shaw declared, “Montgomery, from what I have seen of him, is a conscientious man, and really believes what he says,–‘that he is doing his duty to the best of his knowledge and ability.’”  Two weeks later Shaw described Montgomery to his mother as “being a very simple-minded man—and seems to be pleased at any little attention—perhaps because he has been so much abused.  You will see that he is very attractive to me, and indeed I have taken a fancy to him.” Again, will Sullivan mention this or will Montgomery be playing his movie role in this presentation?

Sullivan hopes to focus the attention of his audience on Shaw’s final assault outside of Charleston at Battery Wagner in which he, along with many of the men in his unit, made the ultimate sacrifice.  It is not clear whether Sullivan will mention that Montgomery also participated in the assault on Fort Wagner.

I sense a little tension in this upcoming commemoration.  On the one hand, no one would ever have heard of the burning of Darien if not for the fact that the 54th Mass. was involved and a popular Hollywood movie was made about it.  At the same time it appears that some people in the community believe that this event was part of Sherman’s March.  I suspect that not much will be done to challenge the popular view of Sherman’s 1864 campaign through Georgia, but in attempting to revise our understanding of the Darien Raid we are left to wonder whether new myths are being generated about Shaw, the 54th and black soldiers generally.  It’s not simply that their involvement was forced. We need to believe that Shaw and the 54th could never have been willing participants in such an act.

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14 comments… add one
  • Doug didier May 20, 2013 @ 5:26

    Bluffton was burned June 4. Most people here refer to the the troops being Yankee .. SCV etc. although talk given by president of LCCWRT credited correctly. As pointed out in web page . 54th was stationed here on st Helena across from Hilton head. Haven’t been able to determine location.

  • Robert Moore May 19, 2013 @ 7:07


    Back to the point of your post then…

    I have to ask how Buddy Sullivan sees a need to vindicate Shaw. I don’t think the article does enough to explain clearly the circumstances surrounding Sullivan’s initiative.

    The article to which you linked reads…

    Sullivan states, “It’s a great misconception… everyone assumed Shaw was the one that burned Darien, especially since the movie ‘Glory’ came out.”


    I have to ask… how so? Even the movie made it very clear that Shaw was reluctant… even being defiant until faced with the possible loss of his regiment to Montgomery.

    I simply can’t see how the movie left any misconceptions. Rather, I wonder if it’s merely a hiccup in “memory”. Shaw was present at the burning (some, apparently, forgetting his resistance in the movie… and/or not fully aware of the actual history), and therefore was responsible. Makes me wonder if this is merely a misconception among locals around the area.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2013 @ 7:15


      I thought the same thing. The movie is indeed very clear re: Shaw’s initial refusal to participate. There appears to be a couple of misconceptions present given the need to remind locals that the Darien Raid was not part of Sherman’s March. I was commenting more on Sullivan’s desire to exculpate Shaw from any wrongdoing as another instance of our tendency to interpret the experience of black Union soldiers generally as beyond question.

  • Wallace Hettle May 19, 2013 @ 6:08

    Montgomery is an odd man to choose as a symbol of racism. He was an abolitionist, fought in Bleeding Kansas, and even knew John Brown. Did he really kill one of his own men without court-martial because he fought with a Confederate woman who called him a “n— soldier?” Seems unlikely, but I don’t know for sure, as it’s fiction, and I’m not an expert on the war in this arena.

    “Glory” should really be viewed as an artifact of race relations and Hollywood conventions of 1989, a full quarter century ago (and yes, writing that sentence makes me feel old.) It’s a great movie, but we should interrogate it with the same skepticism we bring to “Gone with the Wind.”

    • Robert Moore May 19, 2013 @ 6:28

      I think that’s the key. Glory was a great movie… I enjoyed it (and still do) very much. Yet, I don’t think it “gets so much right”. There are a number of historical inaccuracies that deserve just as much attention as even… Gods & Generals. There is an entertainment factor… a “touch someone’s soul” factor… and a historical factor. For those seeking historical truths, no matter the movie, we need to take care when the same movie reaches us on any emotional level.

      • Kevin Levin May 19, 2013 @ 6:31

        No disagreement there. As you know I have offered extensive commentary on the intersection of history, entertainment, and memory re: the 54th on this blog over the years.

        • Robert Moore May 19, 2013 @ 6:40

          … and I’m still at a loss, Kevin, as to why they used Harker’s name in lieu of coming out and saying Hunter. Charles Garrison Harker was, I’m pretty sure, never involved with the Darien incident, and wasn’t even in that theater.

          • Kevin Levin May 19, 2013 @ 6:43

            I always heard it as Hunter so I can’t answer that question. As you and others have noted there are plenty of mistakes in the movie, which is true of every Hollywood movie with a historical subject. We certainly don’t need to tread that ground again. That said, I still think Glory is an invaluable movie to use to reinforce both our understanding of history and memory.

            • Bryan Cheeseboro May 20, 2013 @ 1:26

              “I still think Glory is an invaluable movie to use to reinforce both our understanding of history and memory.”

              I agree and FWIW, I think you could say the same about Gods & Generals and Gettysburg, even with all of their flaws, too. But in the case of those movies, I think they are great tools to teach about the pervasiveness of the Lost Cause. I also think Ron Maxwell’s films are a good example of what happens when you begin to swallow the “indigestible lump of slavery,” as Bruce Catton put it. I was watching the director’s cut of Gettysburg last week and one of Lee’s staff officers reported to the general that the men were on “good behavior” while in Pennsylvania. But the testimony of actual people like Rachel Cormany speaks otherwise. And the movie makes no mention whatsoever about the many Blacks kidnapped and sent South to be enslaved.

              Anyway, Glory to me is a good example of making a story about Black history palatable for a mainstream audience with little to no knowledge of African-American Civil War soldiers nor any awareness of the free, native Northern, educated Black population of the antebellum era. Of course, there are some who still cannot see these people. For them, all this movie did was increase their focus on loyal slaves and the hallucination that tens of thousands of Blacks fought for the Confederacy… once again, swallowing the “indigestible lump of slavery.”

              • Kevin Levin May 20, 2013 @ 3:12

                Good points, but I also think that those people who find it hard to digest the centrality of slavery/race to the Civil War are growing less and less relevant. It’s very much generational. The extreme Lost Cause advocates are even less relevant today for the same reason. There is nothing in our collective memory of the war today that competes with the past influence of the Lost Cause, but I’ve tried to show on this blog that we still have a tendency to make the war more palatable for any number of reasons.

  • Harry May 19, 2013 @ 5:55

    There is a lot of myth surrounding Darien, particularly the role played by Hunter and the notion that the incident played a role in his removal from command. I wrote about it a long, long time ago (in two parts):

  • Robert Moore May 19, 2013 @ 5:19


    Interesting approach to Darien, however, Glory actually failed in portraying Montgomery accurately. Also, the general above Montgomery, in the movie, wasn’t Hunter… but “Harker”.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2013 @ 5:21

      … Glory actually failed in portraying Montgomery accurately.

      Completely agree. As I suggested in the post, he functions as one of the movie’s villains or corrupt side of the U.S. military.

      Really? I never noticed it was pronounced Harker in the movie.

  • Sam Vanderburg May 19, 2013 @ 4:03

    When Curtiss went through Arkansas, his men were guilty of looting and burning many homes as I understand from reading accounts and historical narratives. Even before the Emancipation Proclamation, he was giving papers of emancipation which destroyed the plantation system north of the Arkansas River. I doubt the 54th was not happy with their “duty” that day, but the hardened men of Kansas and Missouri were not as slow to fire a house. Some men were more than happy to loot and burn whether or not any resistance was met.

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