DARIEN, Ga. (AP) – Evidence of the worst day in the city’s history rests in a trash bag at Fort King George State Historic Site.
Aside from tough tabby foundations, the brittle pieces of wood with charred edges are all that’s left of the warehouses that once stood on Darien River when the city was a thriving seaport. It went up in flames July 11, 1863, when the 54th Massachusetts, an all-black Union regiment, torched the town during the Civil War.
The Union troops burned the cotton and rice warehouses, homes, churches, the courthouse and anything else made of wood.
Fort King George Superintendent Steven Smith wants to put the timbers and other artifacts on display when Darien celebrates the 150th anniversary of the burning this year.
Archeologist Fred Cook found the timbers in 1990 during a dig among the tabby ruins of the foundations. He entrusted them to the state park and Smith wants to include them in a museum at the trailhead building downtown.
As Georgia celebrates the sesquicentennial of the war, Smith thinks Darien will be the first out of the blocks.
“As nearly as I can tell, this is the first sesquicentennial observance in Georgia. Not much happened in Georgia until Sherman started his march to the sea,” Smith said.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the fire, said historian Buddy Sullivan, who will deliver two lectures during the observance.
“Everybody asks why Sherman burned Darien,” Sullivan said. “He didn’t.”
Sherman’s Georgia campaign didn’t start until the spring of 1864. He took and burned Atlanta and then marched to the coast, burning and pillaging as he went, Sullivan said.
“The closest he ever came was Savannah,” Sullivan said.
The 54th Massachusetts had been stationed on St. Simons Island until they came north and moved on Darien, he said.
Because it was an important seaport, Darien was blockaded by the Union Navy, Sullivan said.
When the Union troops arrived, there was no resistance.
“Darien was almost completely unpopulated. The population was only about 500, but they had left and moved farther inland because they were worried about being invaded,” he said.
The unit’s commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, strongly objected to his orders to burn Darien, but did so rather than be subject to court martial. Shaw died a month later during the siege of Fort Wagner near Charleston.
Smith doesn’t want the timbers to rest alone in the museum. He is hopeful people will loan some items they have found. After all, Darien goes back to the early 1700s and a lot of things are still found in yards and gardens.
“People dig up stuff all the time,” and bring it by the fort in hopes someone can identify it, Smith said.
He’s seen fully intact Indian pottery, a late 19th-century bayonet from a yard, pottery shards, old rice hoes and axe heads, he said.
Local sources, such as Darien Telephone, the Lower Altamaha Historical Society and the State Farm Foundation, donated a total of $3,500 to the Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, but it also recently received a $10,000 historic tourism grant.
The first event is a Civil War artifact road show from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. March 9 at the fort. People with artifacts are invited to come by and show them off.
There will be some experts there to identify objects and explain their significance, Smith said.
Sullivan will deliver lectures in May and June and there will be a new mural painted in the waterfront park under the U.S. 17 bridge.
The main event is the town festival on June 15 with a living history encampment on Butler Island on the southern side of the Darien River.
There will also be a showing of Glory, a movie filmed partly on Jekyll Island that showed the 54th Massachusetts’ futile assault on Fort Wagner.
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