Sunday, January 5, 2014

Union war criminal would lead brigade at Battle of Olustee

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
February 20 of this year will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida. In commemoration of the battle, I will post quite a bit over the next couple of months about Olustee and some of its participants. Be sure to check back often here at Civil War Florida..

One of the Union commanders at Olustee, Col. James Montgomery, had been accused of war crimes by prominent officers from both sides. Even with this knowledge, Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) placed him in command of a brigade made up of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry and the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers as he prepared for the invasion of Florida that would lead to the Battle of Olustee.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw
54th Massachusetts Infantry
The allegations swirling around Montgomery included most notoriously the burning of Darien, Georgia, on June 11, 1863. The town was occupied only by women, children and the elderly when he bombarded it and then ordered it put to the torch.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw (US) objected to the act when men from his regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, were ordered to assist. Montgomery responded by telling him that Southerners must be "swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old."  Shaw wrote to family members that the "dirty piece of business," as he called it, "makes me very much ashamed of myself."  Please click here to read more about the burning of Darien.

The destruction of Darien, even when not a Confederate soldier was in sight, was not an anomaly in Montgomery's career. His entire life, in fact, had been one of violence.

Col. James Montgomery
2nd South Carolina USCT
Born in Ohio in 1814, he moved with his wife Clarinda to Missouri in 1852 and then Kansas in 1854. There he became part of the so-called "free state" movement. 

Contrary to modern assumptions, the "free soil" or "free state" movement in Kansas did not just call for the abolition of slavery. Many of its leaders were fighting to make Kansas a state "free" of any person of color. Their goal, in  other words, was for Kansas to be a "whites only" state.

An associate of the infamous murderer John Brown, Montgomery led a group of guerrilla raiders during the "Bleeding Kansas" episodes that preceded the War Between the States (or Civil War). He led numerous raids against both pro-slavery Kansans and residents living across the line in Missouri. These raids were characterized by violence, looting, murder and the burning of homes and farms.  In 1860 he served as a delegate to the Republican Convention in Chicago that nominated Abraham Lincoln as the party's nominee for President.

Also in 1860, he organized a party of guerrillas from Kansas who went as far east as Pennsylvania in a planned mission to free John Brown from captivity after his attack on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). A blizzard halted their plan until it was too late.

By July 1861, Montgomery was the colonel of the 3rd Kansas Volunteers. The Union regiment became part of the 10th Kansas Infantry the following year. The 10th is remembered as the regiment of radical firebrand Jim Lane and was involved in the 1861 Sacking of Osceola, Missouri, in which nearly 800 homes and buildings were burned to the ground and 10 pro-Confederate residents were coldly executed.

In one of his Missouri raids, according to the New York Herald, one of the captains in Montgomery's regiment cut off the ear of a pro-Southern man. Montgomery said he regretted in the incident because instead of merely losing his ear, "the traitor ought to have been shot."

Ruins at Darien, Georgia
In January 1863, Col. Montgomery was authorized to raise a regiment of black troops in the Department of the South. He traveled to Key West where he enlisted a core of 130 men. From there they traveled to Beaufort, South Carolina, where he continued to enlist liberated or runaway slaves into the regiment, which became the 2nd South Carolina U.S. Colored Troops.

On June 1, 1863, he led his regiment up the Combahee River in South Carolina. Numerous private homes were burned, many of them occupied by women and children.

On June 11, 1863, he ordered the Burning of Darien, an action that led to complaints to superiors by Col. Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Although Shaw was killed in the disastrous attack on Battery Wagner near Charleston just 25 days later, his letters make it clear that he considered Montgomery to be a war criminal.

Shaw's complaints about Montgomery's actions to his commanders in the Union army were followed on July 4, 1863, by a letter to Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard (CS).  In that letter, Beauregard branded the actions of troops led by Montgomery as war crimes:

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard
...Ravaging and burning private property are acts of licentiousness unauthorized by the laws of war and the belligerent who wages war in that manner must justly...be regarded as carrying on war like a furious barbarian.

Beauregard demanded to know of Gillmore whether "the acts which resulted in the burning of the defenseless villages of Darien and Bluffton and the ravages on the Combahee are regarded by you as legitimate measures of war which you will feel authorized to resort to hereafter."

Gillmore's response was to place Montgomery in command of a brigade in the Union invasion of eastern Florida that was intended to wrest control of part of the state away from the Confederacy in time for it to be readmitted to the Union so its electoral delegates could vote for Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential Election.

At the Battle of Olustee, Montgomery's troops from the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers and 54th Massachusetts Infantry fought bravely. The 54th, in particular, was credited with covering the disastrous retreat of the Union army from the battlefield. The two regiments lost 296 men killed, wounded or missing.

The controversial colonel resigned his commission in September 1864 and returned to Kansas where he commanded the 6th Kansas State Militia until the end of the war. He died in Kansas on December 6, 1871, from natural causes. A Georgia newspaper described him as "diabolical" in its notice of his death, accusing him of atrocities.

To learn more about the burning of Darien, please visit: http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/darienburning.

To learn more about the Battle of Olustee, please visit: http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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