The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863, and afforded African-Americans in the North the opportunity to volunteer for active service in the Federal army, and Governor Andrew of Massachusetts wasted little time in calling the men to arms. During February 1863, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw took charge of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – by month’s end, 1,007 soldiers and 37 officers drilled in Boston.
In late May 1863, the regiment boarded ships and headed to Hilton Head, South Carolina, with the knowledge the Confederate Congress recently authorized the return to slavery of captured African-American soldiers. White officers leading black troops faced death or punishment as determined through the courts. Soon after their arrival at Hilton Head, Shaw and the 54th joined forces with Colonel James Montgomery and his Second South Carolina Volunteers, another African-American regiment. Montgomery, supposedly operating under direct orders from the department commander – Major General David Hunter – ordered Shaw to take their combined forces up Altamaha River toward the port town of Darien, Georgia.
Once the troops neared Darien on June 11, Montgomery, who believed the port operated as a safe haven for Confederate blockade-runners, and served as the hometown of some of the South’s wealthiest slave owners, began shelling the vacated town. Local residents, fearful of the Federal blockade ships of the nearby coast, fled from Darien weeks earlier. Once the soldiers entered the town, Montgomery ordered his troops to begin looting and burning the various buildings. Shaw protested against assisting, but when Montgomery pressured with threats of a court-martial, the young colonel of the 54th relented and ordered some of his men to apply the torch. In a letter to his wife, written the day after the action at Darien, Shaw lamented, “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 dishonor, and I do not like to degenerate into a plunderer…there was not a deed performed, from beginning to end, which required any pluck or courage.” President Abraham Lincoln, fearing repercussions from Hunter’s activity along the coast, relocated the officer to another theater. Just over one month after the shame of their involvement in the destruction of Darien, the men of the 54th would prove their mettle in leading the assault on Battery Wagner.
 “The 54th Massachusetts Infantry,” History, http://www.history.com/topics/the-54th-massachusetts-infantry (accessed May 20, 2013).
 Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 343.
Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center. He is a Civil War historian, author, and newspaper columnist, and a member of the Society of Civil War Historians. He serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and assists the Friends of Camp McDonald as a Civil War consultant.