McIntosh County is adjacent both to Liberty County and the coastline. In 1777, three parishes made up Liberty county — St. John, St. James and St. Andrews. In 1793, St. Andrews was split off and made into McIntosh County.
County seat Darien, which is on the mouth of the Altamaha River, first was named New Inverness. In 1736, it was settled by Scottish highlanders, who were brought by James Oglethorpe to defend English America from the Spaniards. The Scots were industrious, no more afraid to work than to fight and were very much opposed to slavery. Thomas Spalding, especially, was interested in Darien and became its first leading citizen and chief supporter. He owned Sapelo Island but built his home two miles east of Darien and called it Ashantilly after his father’s estate in Scotland. Fort King George, restored, is in Darien.
Darien has been described as a paradise and a Garden of Eden. My mama and daddy lived in the heart of Darien for more than 25 years, and Daddy said it was God’s gift to mankind. He and Mama enjoyed fishing and went almost every day. There were so many good fishing holes within driving distance for them that they could choose a different one each time.
The soil was rich, and he could grow the largest vegetables and prettiest flowers. And we never ran the red light, as there is not a single one in town!
The first trip my family made to Darien was about 1952 in an old Model A. We left after an early breakfast, and it took us until lunch to travel from the middle of Long County to Darien!
Darien has many old, historical houses off the main streets. There is an elegant bed and breakfast. Vernon Square is filled with history. The old churches are things of beauty. The relatively new waterfront park is such a peaceful place to visit or just to sit and read a book. This was a great addition to the town and is widely used.
There are many antique shops and unique eating places there. Several festivals, such as the Blessing of the Fleet, are held annually. For seafood lovers, there is no better place to go to find a great meal. I highly recommend Skipper’s Seafood on the river and J & B’s Seafood and Steaks on the main road. Mud Cat Charlie’s is across the river bridge.
Last Christmas, I suggested to my children that they could go by the Georgia Hardware Store in Darien and buy us several packs of fresh frozen fish for gifts. They thought I was crazy, but Mr. Boone, who owns the store and shrimp boats, has part of the store for cleaning his catch and filling the freezers. The flounder, whiting, catfish and shrimp are cleaned and frozen in water with the weight and price on each bag ready for customers to select their choices. I need to make a trip to the hardware store!
Fanny Ann Kemble lived on Butler Island Plantation, which was just across the Darien Bridge. In her book “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation 1838-1839,” she wrote how delighted she was with the silver-gray moss hanging from many oak trees. It made a beautiful sight but was practical also. African-Americans gathered and sold it to the people of Darien for materials to stuff mattresses, sofas and loveseats. She thought it was splendid for this purpose, as it was light as horse hair, springy and elastic and a great deal less harsh and rigid.
She also loved the great magnolias and birds around Darien. The old rice-mill chimney still is standing on the plantation. My husband, Gene, lived there in the big white house for several years and was the overseer as a waterfowl manager.
In 1818, Darien could have been the queen of Coastal Georgia. It was a port of export, especially for the fine rice crops that were grown on the many plantations in Liberty, McIntosh and Glynn counties. The Altamaha River was filled with barges and boats filled with rice. The rice was stored in the many large, tabby-walled warehouses that lined the docks and boardwalks, which stretched about 3 miles along the banks. It also was a famous lumber town and had a great sawmill on Cat Head Creek, as well as several other sawmills.
The economics in Darien and McIntosh County were going good until the horrible days of the Civil War rolled around in 1861. In 1863, Union boats began patrolling around Darien. All able men had joined the Confederate Army and were fighting somewhere else. Most of the people in Darien had gone to the Ridge a few miles from the town.
Dr. Samuel P. Boyer, a 23-year-old Pennsylvanian who had just graduated from medical school, joined the U. S. Navy and was stationed on the ship Wamsutta docked in Doboy Sound in 1863. In his personal journal, he wrote that he went ashore in Darien one day in March and not a soul could be seen. He looked at all the locked homes and businesses and counted the large, whitewashed warehouses along the docks. He counted as many as 15 warehouses and stores. One of the warehouses had large black letters painted on it that spelled Mitchell and Smith. He noted that this must have been a beautiful, flourishing and striving little town.
He also wrote that he went on Sapelo Island and the sand flies were as plentiful as the politicians up North, but he could not tell if they were as dangerous!
Early on Thursday, June 11, 1863, Col. James Montgomery of Kansas, who was a preacher before he joined the U.S. Army, and Col. Robert Gould Shaw of Boston went ashore at Darien with more than 400 black Union soldiers. They looted everything that was of value and carried it to their ships. The animals were herded aboard, too. What could not be put on board was shot and left lying in the streets to rot and stink.
When finished with the looting, they were commanded to take their lighter knots, light them and go from building to building and torch them. Schools, churches, stores, warehouses, sawmills and homes were set on fire.
They climbed back on board around 11 that night, smiling from their day’s work. This little, beautiful town that had been called Darien was no more. And not one shot had been fired except to kill animals.
This was one of the saddest effects of the Civil War.
Shaw was killed July 18, 1863, in a battle near Charleston, S.C. Later, his mother in Boston read where the St. Andrews Episcopal Church was asking for donations to help rebuild their church, which Shaw had burned. She was so upset by this accusation that she sent $1,400 to help the church and, by using the letters he had written her, tried to clear his name. She said he had not wanted to burn the town but had to take orders from Montgomery or be court-martialed.
St. Andrews was rebuilt in 1879 just a short distance from the site of the burned church. It is a beautiful church in Vernon Square. Read Spencer B. King’s book “Darien, The Death and Rebirth of a Southern Town.” to see the whole story of the two colonels. It’s a fantastic book for anyone interested in the history of our area and gives details of the months after the war ended.
A book written by Buddy Sullivan, “Early Days on the Georgia Tidewater,” contains so much history and parts of the personal journals kept by Dr. Boyer. Sullivan knows the history of southern Georgia well, especially the coastal area, and has written several great historical books.
On Saturday, Darien will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the city’s burning. There will be a town festival and a living-history encampment and re-enactment downtown. The festival runs 10 a.m.-5 p.m. At 6 p.m. Tuesday in Darien, there will be a grand opening of the Burning of Darien Civil War Museum at the new Trail Head Center. On Thursday at the McIntosh Academy Auditorium, the 1989 Oscar-winning movie “Glory” will be showcased. The film depicts the burning of Darien.
Today, Darien is not known for its exports of lumber and rice, but it is thought of as a unique little town filled with much history and waterfront activities such as fishing, shrimping and boating. Much history has run under the Darien Bridge since 1777.