By Colin Woodward
Fans of the 1989 film Glory know who Colonel James Montgomery is. In one of the movie’s many compelling scenes, Montgomery (Cliff de Young) orders the burning of the town of Darien, Georgia, on June 10, 1863, while Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) looks on in horror. Before the black Union troops light Darien ablaze, Montgomery shoots one of his own men for fighting with a white “secesh” woman. He then declares, “Secession must be swept away by the hand of God.”
In a film in which Confederate soldiers have no speaking roles, Montgomery emerges as one of the villains. In contrast, Shaw and his dignified black regiment go on to win immortality during the attack on Battery Wagner depicted in the film’s moving and bloody finale.
As is true of all of Hollywood’s historical movies, Glory blends fact and fiction in its depiction of Montgomery. True, Montgomery ordered the destruction of Darien. He did in fact utter those words about punishment for secession. It is also true that Shaw was appalled at Montgomery’s actions. But the film oversimplifies the relationship between Shaw and Montgomery. Before the fateful day in Darien, Shaw found much to admire in Montgomery, whom he praised for his energy and—perhaps ironically—his conscientiousness.
James Montgomery was born in Ohio in 1814 into a religious and anti-slavery family. He later moved to Kentucky where he married—oddly enough—a woman from a slaveholding household. He later moved to Missouri and then Kansas, where he won notoriety as a Jayhawker, who fought to keep the territory from becoming a slave state. In Kansas, Montgomery met John Brown.
When the Civil War broke out, Montgomery joined a Kansas unit and then became commander of the 2nd South Carolina regiment, which consisted solely of former slaves. In the southeast, Montgomery served alongside not only Robert Gould Shaw but also Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who called Montgomery a “genius.”
In the spring of 1863, with the help of abolitionist Harriet Tubman acting as a guide, Montgomery freed some 800 slaves during the colonel’s raid along the Combahee in South Carolina. The Combahee expedition made Montgomery the darling of abolitionists, who applauded his efforts at taking a hard line toward slavery in the Deep South. Montgomery was not alone in his plans to bring the hard war to the southeastern Confederacy. A Few months before the destruction of Darien, Higginson and his troops had taken part in actions in Jacksonville, which suffered serious damage.
By June 1863, many abolitionists saw that the North must do whatever it took to eradicate slavery, even if that meant targeting civilians and communities. Frederick Douglass called Montgomery a “wise man,” and when it came to the white people of Darien, Douglass opined, “whoever sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”
Montgomery’s actions on behalf of slaves and emancipation did not mean he was a racial egalitarian. In the fall of 1864, the 54th Massachusetts regiment, of which Montgomery was then in command, sought equal pay with white troops. Montgomery disapproved of their protests, believing his men should instead accept the injustice. “You are a race of slaves,” he told them. “A few years ago your fathers worshipped snakes and crocodiles.” He added that his men’s “features partake of a beastly character.” Montgomery urged his men to embrace religion and education as a means of bettering themselves. Montgomery left the southeastern theater in late 1864, but he later fought in Kansas and Missouri. After the war, he farmed in Kansas until his death in December 1871.
Long before Sherman’s march to the sea, James Montgomery won fame for burning homes in Georgia, showing that abolitionists were quite willing to turn a war of maneuver and negotiation into a hard war to destroy slavery by force. But they were not the only ones, unfortunately for many civilians across the nation. A few months after Darien, Rebels sacked the town of Lawrence, Kansas. Here, many civilians were harmed—in fact, murdered—in one of the worst days of the war.
Colin Woodward is the author of “Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War” (University of Virginia Press, 2014), and the editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall. He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.