The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

"The pretty little place was burnt to the ground": The Destruction of Darien, Georgia


We feel very badly that you were compelled to take part, through your men, in the destruction of Darien, & fully sympathize in the sentiments you express. I sincerely hope that as Genl Hunter has been relieved, there may be a modification of the policy which caused the perpetration of such a deed, & that you may not be obliged again to participate in anything so repugnant to you.


This excerpt comes from a letter written by Francis G. Shaw to his son Robert Gould Shaw on 23 June 1863, part of the Shaw-Minturn family papers at the MHS. Twelve days earlier, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the African-American regiment Robert commanded, had participated with other troops in a raid on the town of Darien in southeast Georgia.

Unfortunately, our collection doesn’t include Robert’s original letter, but Francis was probably replying to the one Robert wrote to his wife Annie the day after the raid, which she sent on to his parents. Robert’s letter to Annie has been printed in Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune (1992) and other publications.

According to his account, when Union troops arrived at Darien, they found the place all but deserted. James Montgomery, colonel of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry (another black regiment) and post commander, had the furniture, livestock, and other movable property confiscated, then smiled “a sweet smile” at Shaw and said, “I shall burn this town.” Shaw explained:

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. […]

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.


Shaw called it a “dirty piece of business” and “as abominable a job as I ever had a share in.” He hated “to degenerate into a plunderer and robber. […] There was not a deed performed, from beginning to end, which required any pluck or courage.” He also feared the raid would damage the reputation of black soldiers. Montgomery’s actions were “barbarous” and gratuitous, he thought, and made him no better than notorious Confederate raider Raphael Semmes. But disobeying orders would have meant a court-martial. Shaw lamented, “after going through the hard campaigning and hard fighting in Virginia, this makes me very much ashamed of myself.”

Luis F. Emilio, another officer of the 54th, wrote about the Darien raid 28 years later in his history of the regiment. Emilio also described the beauty of the town, as well as the looting and destruction carried out by Union troops. But while Shaw’s account was thoughtful and conflicted, Emilio’s was a little more clinical and didn’t address the ethical questions.

Robert Gould Shaw and many other men of the 54th Regiment were killed during the assault on Fort Wagner just a few weeks after the destruction of Darien. Another letter in the Shaw-Minturn collection, written by Rev. Phillips Brooks, summarizes Shaw’s legacy. Brooks wrote to Robert’s mother on 17 Nov. 1892: “Indeed, he belongs to all of us, & to the country, & to history.”


comments: 3 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 October, 2017, 11:31 AM

This Week @ MHS

It's another busy week here at the Society with a nice selection of public programs happening. Here's what is coming up;

- Monday 23 October, 12:00PM : Pack your lunch and stop by for a Brown Bag talk with Laura McCoy of Northwestern University. "'Let it be your resolution to be happy': Women's Emotion Work in the Early Republic" explores the everyday realities of expressing and managing emotions as a foundation of daily labors - emotion work - and helps us understand women's actions and self-perceptions in the early republic. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Monday, 23 October, 6:00PM : "Advise & Dissent?" is a conversation that examines the role of public history in modern life. This compelling panel discussion is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Pre-talk reception takes place at 5:30PM followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM. 

- Tuesday, 24 October, 5:15PM : Join us for the next installment of the Modern American Society and Culture seminar series. Led by Jennifer Way of the University of North Texas, "Allaying Terror: Domesticating Artisan Refugees in South Vietnam, 1956" explores the publication of photographs of North Vietnam refugee artisans in English-language mass print media. They aimed at resettling and domesticating the refugees while diminishing white American middle-class anxieties about the potential spread of communism in South Vietnam, a place Sen. John F. Kennedy pronounced "the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia." Commen is provided by Robert Lee of Brown University. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. THIS EVENT IS CANCELED DUE TO ILLNESS.

- Wednesday, 25 October, 12:00PM : The second Brown Bag talk this week is given by Nancy Siegel of Towson University, and is called "Political Appetites: Revolution, Taste, and Culinary Activism in the Early Republic." Culinary activists furthered republican values in the revolutionary era as part of a political and cultural ideology. They developed a culinary vocabulary expressed in words and actions such as the refusal to consume politically charged comestibles, like imported tea, and the celebration of a national horticulture. Through these choices, they established a culinary discourse involving food, political culture, and national identity from the Stamp Act to the early republic. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Wednesday, 25 October, 6:00PM : "Weird and Worrisome" is a special walking tour of Jamaica Plain. All neigborhoods have secrets but some are stranger than others. In this event, participants will stop at sites of anarchist robberies, stuffed elephants, and a nervine asylum and hear tales of trainwrecks and things that lurk beneath the surfact of Jamaica Pond. The tour is hosted in collaboration with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and Jamaics Plain Historical Society. THIS TOUR IS SOLD OUT!

- Saturday, 28 October, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute, docent-led walk through the public spaces of the Society's home at 1154 Boylston St. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations for individuals or small groups. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition, Yankees in the West

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 22 October, 2017, 12:00 AM

Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, October 1917

Today we return to the 1917 diary of Gertrude Codman Carter. You may read the previous entries here:


Introduction | January | February | March | April | May

June | July | August | September


October 1917 is a lean month in Gertrude’s records, possibly because of Gilbert Carter’s return home from his long absence while Gertrude was relocating the family to Ilaro. After a final, hurried day of preparation on October 1st, Gilbert and Wickham -- the household servant who had traveled with him -- arrive and are greeted in fine style by a “grand gala festival.”

The sketch of her son, pasted over the entry for October 28th, has a faint inscription that seems to indicate that the drawing was made on the day of the visit to the photographer -- an inference supported by the fact that John appears to be wearing the same outfit as he wore in the photograph pasted into the September pages of the diary.


* * *

Oct 1.

Paid servants & rushed on with G’s room. Mickey & I moved books, put up curtains, laid down mats.


Oct 2.

Gilbert (and Wickham) arrived.

Grand gala festival.

Mr. Soelyn came up & witnessed my will.


Oct 3.



Sketch of John


Oct 28.

G & I dined with Sir F. & Lady Clarke at the Crane. Festive occasion.


Oct 29.

Tea at the Challums. Laddy drove Mrs Gregg out & me in. 9 the [illegible].

We went to Bleak House.


Oct 30.

4.15 Miss Burton stonework.


Oct 31.

All Hallow’e’en Fete at the MacClaren’s 

Fete in red [illegible.]


* * *

As always, if you are interested in viewing the diary or letters yourself, in our library, or have other questions about the collection please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 20 October, 2017, 12:00 AM

“Mark, Traveler, this humble stone”: Quaint and Curious Epitaphs of Copp’s Hill Burying Ground

I find a visit to any of New England’s burying grounds fascinating year-round, but I consider treading among slate gravestones and timeworn monuments in October a quintessential New England experience. The leaves turn and fall, beautifully marking a transition from livelier months to the eventual stillness of winter. It’s a fitting setting to consider the lives and deaths of those memorialized on surrounding grave markers. In Historical Sketch of Copp’s Hill Burying-Ground with Descriptions and Quaint Epitaphs, published in 1909, John Norton provides an overview of Copp’s Hill in Boston and the burying ground’s gravestones. Norton begins with a history of Copp’s Hill, spanning its early days as “the North burying ground” through a time “when the well-to-do of Boston dwelt largely in the North End” to the end of the burying ground’s growth around 1832. The second half of this publication includes photographs and epitaphs of select gravestones and monuments.

Hull Street Entrance, Copps Hill Burying Ground


As I read through this Historical Sketch, I realized I neglect to spend as much time as I should to pause and read headstones as I walk through a graveyard. It’s a shame, because whether you appreciate some blunt wisdom from the grave or simply enjoy an eerie epitaph, these gravestones have you covered. Thankfully, John Norton mitigates my neglect with this compilation of “old epitaphs, many of them, as is usual in old burying-grounds, quaint and curious, some incoherent and ungrammatical.” Reading these lines on paper might not have the same effect as seeing them inscribed on their intended medium, but I found this publication a handy tool for noticing themes and considering intentions of particular inscriptions.

Copps Hill Buyring Ground. (Central Part.)


Norton includes his own commentary on certain epitaphs. He remarks, “Doubtless the oddest and most puzzling is that over the grave of Mrs. Ammey Hunt, who died in 1769. We have no clue to the neighborhood gossip hinted at in these peculiar lines:

A sister of Sarah Lucas lieth here,

Whom I did Love most Dear;

And now her Soul hath took its Flight,

And bid her Spightful Foes good Night.


Norton continues, noting an “even more amusing…tradition connected with the following conventional stanza” on the stone of Mrs. Mary Huntley:

Stop here my friends & cast an eye,

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.


This reminder is a common theme of Copp’s Hill epitaphs, some phrased more motivationally than others:

Susanna Gray, July 9, 1798,––42.

Stranger as this spot you tread,

And meditate upon the Dead;

Improve the moments as they fly,

For all that lives must shortly die.


Mrs. Mary Harvey, died May 2, 1782, aged 63:

Mark, Traveler, this humble stone

‘Tis death’s kind warning to prepare

Thou too must hasten to the tomb

And mingle with corruption there.


Mrs. Hariot Jacobus, died, May 27, 1812, aged 20:

Stop here my friends as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so you must be,

Therefore prepare to follow me.


Others take a more resigned, if not foreboding, approach:

Mrs. Mary Hughes, d. in 1765, aged 46:

Time, What an empty vapour t’is,

            And days, how swift they flay:

Our life is ever on the Wing,

            And Death is ever nigh.

The Moment when our Lives begin,

            We all begin to die.


Mrs. Sarah Collins, died March 29, 1771, aged 62:

Be ye also Ready for you

Know not the Day nor hour.


Many epitaphs of younger women and children express themes of virtue and youth, imagery of fading flowers:

Miss Mary Fitzgerald, died Sept. 30, 1787, aged 19:

Virtue & youth just in the morning bloom

With the fair Mary finds an early Tomb.


John S. Johnson, died Sept. 9, 1829, aged 6:

See the lovely blooming flower,

Fades and withers in an hour

So our transient comforts fly,

Pleasure only bloom to die.


Others offer a sort of rational wisdom to console mourners:

Mrs. Deborah Blake, d. in 1791, aged 21 years:

Friends as you pass, suppress the falling tear;

You wish her out of heaven to wish her here.


Mrs. Abigail Cogswell, died Jan. 19. 1782, aged 42:

To those who for their loss are griev’d

This Consolation’s given,

They’re from a world of woe reliev’d

We trust they’re now in heaven.


If you have the opportunity, I encourage an autumn visit to Copp’s Hill and other historic New England burying grounds. While you take in the site and scenery, spend some time considering the lives and deaths of the individuals whose graves are marked. Read what they or their loved ones chose to be inscribed on their stones. For inspiration, historical sketches, and legible transcriptions of “ye ancient epitaphs,” as Norton writes, read more about visiting the library to work with Norton’s Historical Sketch of Copp’s Hill Burying-Ground and related material.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It's a busy week here at the Society with programs galore for your enjoyment! Here is what's coming in the week ahead:

- Monday, 16 October, 12:00PM : The first Brown Bag talk this week features Hannah Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania and is called "'Lived Botany' : Settler Colonialism and Natural History in British North America." Anderson contends that natural historians in early America frequently benefited from information and plants provided by non-elite colonists who relied upon a form of knowledge that she calls "lived botany." Using methods inspired by material culture, household production, and more, "lived botany" shaped early American natural history, and facilitated settler colonialism by allowing colonists to adapt to new environments in the Atlantic world. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Tuesday, 17 October, 5:30PM : The first seminar this week is part of the History of Women and Gender series. "Gender, Sexuality, and the New Labor History" is a panel discussion with Anne G. Balay of Haverford College, Aimee Loiselle of the University of Connecticut, and Traci L. Parker of Umass-Amherst, and moderated by Seth Rockman of Brown University. The "New Labor History" is highly gendered, global, and often situated in spaces that are transitory or obscured. This session will consider the new directions that the path-breaking work of these three scholars indicates. Please note that there are no pre-circulated essays for this session which takes place at Fay House, Radcliffe Institute. To RSVP, e-mail or call 617-646-0579.

- Wednesday, 18 October, 12:00PM : The second Brown Bag talk of the week is about a project by Heather Sanford of Brown University. "Palatable Slavery: Food, Race, and Freedom in the British Atlantic, 1620-1838" uses food in the British Atlantic to understand ideas about the body, race, and freedom. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 19 October, 5:30PM : "Chasing Your Subject: Traveling Biographers, Traveling Subjects," part of the New England Biography series of seminars, is another panel discussion. This session features a discussion with Paul Fisher of Wellesley College, Charlotte Gordon of Endicott College, and author Sue Quinn, moderated by Civil War biographer Carol Bundy. What do biographers learn when they travel to distant parts and foreign countries in pursuit of their subjects? Is travel a necessary component to writing biography? And what challenges does a traveling subject present to a biographer? Come listen to these biographers talk about their experiences with such questions. To RSVP, e-mail or call 617-646-0579.

- Friday, 20 October, 2:00PM : "Looking West from the East" is a biographical sketch of Chiang Yee, artist, poet, lecturer, and best-selling author best known for his Silent Traveler books. Chiang was also good friends with historian, author, and Boston Athenaeum librarian Walt Whitehil, whose papers are at the MHS. This program offers a unique perspective on America and the immigrant experience as well as a glimpse into the life of the Silent Traveler through one of his closest friendships. Registration is required for this program at no cost. 

- Saturday, 21 October, 9:00AM : K-12 educators are invited "The Material Culture of Death." In this workshop, participants will use documents and photographs from the Society's collections to investigate spirit photography, the spiritualist movement, and other fascinating intersections of technology, faith, and grief. Registration is required for this event with a fee of $25.

- Saturday, 21 October, 2:00PM : Join us for a talk with Peter Manseau, author of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, & the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost. The stories recounted by Manseau offer a view of our nation's obsession with the afterlife and our reluctance to choose science over fantasy. This talk is open to the public free of charge, though registration is required. 

Finally, don't forget to come in and check out our current exhibition! Yankees in the West is open to the public, free of charge. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 12:00 AM

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