A letter by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
to his wife Annie about
The Raid at
St. Simons Island, Ga. [RGS]
Tuesday, June 9, 1863
My Dearest Annie,
We arrived at the southern point of this island at six
this morning. I went ashore to report to Colonel [James]
Montgomery, and was ordered to proceed with my regiment
to a place called "Pike's Bluff," on the inner
coast of the island, and encamp. We came up here in
another steamer, the "Sentinel," as the
"De Molay" is too large for the inner
waters,—and took possession to-day of a plantation
formerly owned by Mr. Gould. We have a very nice
camping-ground for the regiment, and I have my quarters
in "the house"; very pleasantly situated, and
surrounded by fine large trees. The island is beautiful,
as far as I have seen it. You would be enchanted with the
scenery here; the foliage is wonderfully thick, and the
trees covered with hanging moss, making beautiful avenues
wherever there is a road or path; it is more like the
tropics than anything I have seen. Mr. Butler King's
plantation, where I first went ashore, must have been a
beautiful place, and well kept. It is entirely neglected
now, of course; and as the growth is very rapid, two
years' neglect almost covers all traces of former care.
I could have gone on describing to you the beauties of
this region, who knows but I might have made a fine
addition to the literature of our age? But since I wrote
the above, I have been looking at something very
On Wednesday, a steamboat appeared off our wharf, and
Colonel Montgomery hailed me from the deck with,
"How soon can you get ready to start on an
expedition?" I said, "In half an hour,"
and it was not long before we were on board with eight
companies, leaving two for camp-guard.
We steamed down by his camp, where two other steamers
with five companies from his regiment, and two sections
of Rhode Island artillery, joined us. A little below
there we ran aground, and had to wait until midnight for
flood-tide, when we got away once more.
At 8 A.M., we were at the mouth of the Altamaha River,
and immediately made for Darien. We wound in and out
through the creeks, twisting and turning continually,
often heading in directly the opposite direction from
that which we intended to go, and often running aground,
thereby losing much time. Besides our three vessels, we
were followed by the gunboat "Paul Jones."
On the way up, Montgomery threw several shells among the
plantation buildings, in what seemed to me a very brutal
way; for he didn't know how many women and children there
About noon we came in sight of Darien, a beautiful little
town. Our artillery peppered it a little, as we came up,
and then our three boats made fast to the wharves, and we
landed the troops. The town was deserted, with the
exception of two white women and two negroes.
Montgomery ordered all the furniture and movable property
to be taken on board the boats. This occupied some time;
and after the town was pretty thoroughly disembowelled,
he said to me, "I shall burn this town." He
speaks always in a very low tone, and has quite a sweet
smile when addressing you. I told him, "I did not
want the responsibility of it," and he was only too
happy to take it all on his shoulders; so the pretty
little place was burnt to the ground, and not a shed
remains standing; Montgomery firing the last buildings
with his own hand. One of my companies assisted in it,
because he ordered them out, and I had to obey. You must
bear in mind, that not a shot had been fired at us from
this place, and that there were evidently very few men
left in it. All the inhabitants (principally women and
children) had fled on our approach, and were no doubt
watching the scene from a distance. Some of our
grape-shot tore the skirt of one of the women whom I saw.
Montgomery told her that her house and property should be
spared; but it went down with the rest.
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. In theory it may seem all
right to some, but when it comes to being made the
instrument of the Lord's vengeance, I myself don't like
it. Then he says, "We are outlawed, and therefore
not bound by the rules of regular warfare" but that
makes it none the less revolting to wreak our vengeance
on the innocent and defenceless.
By the time we had finished this dirty piece of business,
it was too dark to go far down the narrow river, where
our boat sometimes touched both banks at once; so we lay
at anchor until daylight, occasionally dropping a shell
at a stray house. The "Paul Jones" fired a few
guns as well as we.
I reached camp at about 2 P.M. to-day, after as
abominable a job as I ever had a share in.
We found a mail waiting for us, and I received your dear
letter, and several from Father, Mother, Effie, and some
business correspondence. This is the first news we have
had since our departure, and I rather regained my good
Now, dear Annie,
remember not to breathe a word of what I have written
about this raid, to any one out of our two families, for
I have not yet made up my mind what I ought to do.
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. For myself, I have gone through the war so far
without dishonour, and I do not like to degenerate into a
plunderer and robber,—and the same applies to every
officer in my regiment. There was not a deed performed,
from beginning to end, which required any pluck or
courage. If we had fought for possession of the place,
and it had been found necessary to hold or destroy it, or
if the inhabitants had done anything which deserved such
punishment, or if it were a place of refuge for the
enemy, there might have been some reason for Montgomery's
acting as he did; but as the case stands, I can't see any
justification. If it were the order of our government to
overrun the South with fire and sword, I might look at it
in a different light; for then we should be carrying out
what had been decided upon as a necessary policy. As the
case stands, we are no better than "Semmes,"
who attacks and destroys defenceless vessels, and haven't
even the poor excuse of gaining anything by it; for the
property is of no use to us, excepting that we can now
sit on chairs instead of camp-stools.
But all I complain of; is wanton destruction. After going
through the hard campaigning and hard fighting in
Virginia, this makes me very much ashamed of myself.
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."
...There are two courses only for me to pursue: to
obey orders and say nothing; or to refuse to go on any
more such expeditions, and be put under arrest, probably
court-martialled, which is a serious thing.
June 13th.—This letter I am afraid will be
behindhand, for a boat went to Hilton Head this morning
from the lower end of the island, and I knew nothing
about it. Colonel Montgomery has gone up himself; and
will not be back until Tuesday probably.
...To-day I rode over to Pierce Butler's plantation. It
is an immense place, and parts of it very beautiful. The
house is small, and badly built, like almost all I have
seen here. There are about ten of his slaves left there,
all of them sixty or seventy years old. He sold three
hundred slaves about three years ago.
I talked with some, whose children and grandchildren were
sold then, and though they said that was a "weeping
day," they maintained that "Massa Butler was a
good massa," and they would give anything to see him
again. When I told them I had known Miss Fanny, they
looked very much pleased, and one named John wanted me to
tell her I had seen him. They said all the
house-servants had been taken inland by the overseer at
the beginning of the war; and they asked if we couldn't
get their children back to the island again. These were
all born and bred on the place, and even selling away
their families could not entirely efface their love for
their master. Isn't it horrible to think of a man being
able to treat such faithful creatures in such a manner?
The island is traversed from end to end by what they call
a shell-road; which is hard and flat, excellent for
driving. On each side there are either very large and
overhanging trees, with thick underbrush, or open country
covered with sago-palm, the sharp-pointed leaves making
the country impassable. Occasionally we meet with a few
fields of very poor grass; when there is no swamp, the
soil is very sandy.
There are a good many of these oyster-shell roads, for in
many places there are great beds of them, deposited
nobody knows when, I suppose. The walls of many of the
buildings are built of cement mixed with oyster-shells,
which make it very durable.
I forgot to tell you that the negroes at Mr. Butler's
remembered Mrs. Kemble very well, and said she was a very
fine lady. They hadn't seen her since the young ladies
were very small, they said. My visit there was very
interesting and touching.
A deserted homestead is always a sad sight, but here in
the South we must look a little deeper than the surface,
and then we see that every such overgrown plantation, and
empty house, is a harbinger of freedom to the slaves, and
every lover of his country, even if he have no feeling
for the slaves themselves, should rejoice.
Next to Mr. Butler's is the house of Mr. James E. Cooper.
It must have been a lovely spot; the garden is well laid
out, and the perfume of the flowers is delicious. The
house is the finest on the island. The men from our
gunboats have been there, and all the floors are strewed
with books and magazines of every kind. There is no
furniture in any of these houses.
Please send this to Father, for I want him and Mother to
read it, and I don't care about writing it over.
Colonel Montgomery's original plan, on this last
expedition, was to land about fifteen miles above Darien,
and march down on two different roads to the town, taking
all the negroes to be found, and burning every planter's
house on the passage. I should have commanded our
detachment, in that case. The above are the orders he
Good bye for to-day, dearest Annie.
Your loving Rob
Russell Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Georgia: The University of Georgia Press,
1992), pp. 341-345.
Above right: Christ Church on St. Simons Island, photo by DLO. Christ
Church's congregation was established in 1736. The
original structure was nearly destroyed in 1820, and the
present one was built in 1884. Above left: Image of Colonel Shaw from May 1863, care of Boston Athenaeum.
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