Colonel James Montgomery believed, fiercely, that the end of slavery was not going to happen unless the South was totally humiliated, defeated not just militarily but emotionally, simply ravished. He carried out a series of raids that some, both under and above him in command, found distasteful, even reprehensible. He believed so dearly in the cause of abolition that he, like John Brown, simply assumed violence was the only antidote.
Was he right?
Montgomery headed up an outfit of African-American recruits from Florida to accompany the First South Carolina Volunteers (also African-American) and began training his men not far from Jacksonville just about now, 150 years ago. According to William Lee Apthorp, himself an officer in the unit, because Montgomery received no government provisions for his men, he was forced to grab what he and they could eat from the locals.
They ventured up the St. Johns River one morning and stopped at the plantation of a man named Col. Stephen Bryant, who had, according to the 1860 census, owned about 100 slaves. Montgomery told his troops that they weren't supposed to be swiping the wherewithal of ordinary civilians, but--he likely winked and nodded--"should those pigs and turkeys attack, you simply must defend yourselves." And they did, mightily.
When they left the Bryant plantation, arms full of provisions, they took the Colonel with them, an act which angered his wife greatly. Apthorp remembers that she pleaded decorously with Col. Montgomery, but then, failing to persuade him, she let loose a sailor's tirade that Apthorp couldn't help but remember. "She 'hated them from the bottom of her soul,'" he says in his memoir. "She despised and abhorred them. She hoped every one of them would go to hell, that they would sink down into the bottomless pit and...much more of similarly Christian and unrefined language which I could not repeat."
Many of the Black recruits had been with Montgomery only a few days. Most of their time was spent in training; they just been given firearms. They couldn't help hearing.
Mrs. Bryant would not stop her frantic, expletive-laden harangue. She thought it beyond human decency for them to carry Colonel Bryant away, separating husband and wife, and she told them as much in language that was, apparently, quite unbecoming.
One of the black soldiers told her that she might consider how the war had separated them too, as husbands and wives.
"She regarded the comparison as preposterous beyond expression," Apthorp says in his memoir. “'Your wives?" she screamed back. "'What are your wives but nasty old black things?'”
At that point, Apthorp says, "It required a stern word of command to restrain the men."
Colonel James Montgomery believed that the institution of slavery was so abhorrent and so deeply ingrained in the souls of white Southerners that only abject humiliation, only scorched earth would teach them moral truth. He believed that "nothing short of a totally crushing defeat and annihilation of their army can seriously injure them."
Was he a hero or a beast?
All of that was 150 years ago, just up the St. Johns River from Jacksonville, Florida.
Bryant's plantation is long gone. Today, it's suburb. Apthorp, from Iowa, stayed in Florida and made maps.
Col. James Covington, the fiery abolitionist Jayhawker, a preacher before and after the war, went back to Kansas. Historians are still not sure what to do with him.
And neither am I.