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The Union soldiers defending Forts Sumter and Moultrie in Charleston Harbor had come to believe that their honor, as well as the honor of the Constitution and the federal government, was at stake…

Star of the West

Star of the West

Shortly after dawn, around 6 am, on January 9, 1861, Captain Abner Doubleday spotted a steamer preparing to enter Charleston Harbor by route of the Morris Island channel. The men at Fort Sumter had heard rumors the previous day that a merchant ship was approaching with re-enforcements. They understandably dismissed the rumors. After all, why would the government publicize such a vital secret, the men at Sumter wondered? Even more importantly, why would the government fail to inform the Union forces in Charleston Harbor of such re-enforcements? Additionally perplexing, why would the government send a merchant ship rather than a vessel of war? Assuming the government not to be completely inept (a poor assumption with President James Buchanan in charge), the men of Fort Sumter worried that the entire story and ship could also be a ruse, perpetrated by South Carolina. Maybe the ship was a decoy or a test. Worse, the ship might contain several hundred South Carolinian marines, ready to assault a trusting Fort Sumter. Whatever the rumors, Doubleday immediately noted that this ship, bearing a normal American flag, was not an official naval vessel.[1] This was odd, in and of itself.

Almost as soon as Doubleday spied the ship, a battery, recently planted on Morris Island by the South Carolinians, opened fire with a warning shot when the ship was within about 5/8 of a mile of Morris Island and two miles, equidistant, from Forts Moultrie and Sumter. The battery, though hidden, was marked with a nearby red Palmetto flag, Major Stephen of the Citadel Cadets, commanding.[2] “Suddenly, whi-z-z! comes a richochet shot from Morris Island,” a sailor remembered. “It plunges into the water and skips along, but falls short of our steamer. The line was forward of our bow, and was, of course, an invitation to stop.”[3] The offending ship, Star of the West, entered the harbor “with barely water enough to float my vessel over the bar,” its captain, Samuel McGowan, wrote five days after the event. There were “no buoys in proper places, the ranges all cut down, with the assistance of no person on board who had ever been in Charleston before.”[4] In response to the warning shot, the Star of the West, hoisted a huge U.S. garrison flag. “A large garrison flag, 30 by 40 feet, had been furnished to me, with orders to hoist it in case Fort Moultrie fired upon the vessel,” the captain explained. “And that being recognized, Major Robert Anderson would protect the ship by the guns of Fort Sumter. After the first shot being fired this flag was hoisted at the fore, and could be plainly seen from” Anderson’s position.[5]

Doubleday ran as quickly as possible to Anderson’s quarters and awoke him. Anderson immediately ordered the men to man their posts.[6] His men responded admirably, manning their guns “almost before the guns of the hidden battery had fired their second shot.”[7] Many of the men worried that the ship meant the end of their sojourn in Charleston Harbor. “There had been some talk among the men, based upon rumors from Charleston, that the garrison would either be withdrawn from the harbor or returned to Fort Moultrie,” Davis recorded. Those who believed this rumor “were now confident that withdrawal had been determined on,” with the Star of the West arriving to whisk them away. “There was no denying that appearances favored the theory, yet there was no enthusiasm. The men were beginning to feel that they were a match for their adversaries, and they were loath to leave without proving it.”[8] The men had worked too hard since December twenty-sixth to depart now. Their honor, and the honor of the Constitution and the federal government, was at stake, or so they believed.

Surgeon Samuel W. Crawford, Lieutenant R.K. Meade, Lieutenant Jefferson C. Davis, and Anderson met the men at the guns on the parapet, and each identified the Star of the West, under the U.S. flag, attempting to enter the harbor. The ship began to signal Sumter, but Anderson could not reply, as his own flags were tangled in a twisted mess.[9] The mariners of the Star of the West were utterly confused by the failure of Anderson to respond.

Why does not Major Anderson open fire upon that battery and save us? We look in vain for help; the American flag flies from Fort Sumter, and the American flag at our bow and stern is fired upon, yet there is not the slightest recognition of our presence from the fort from which we look for protection. The unexpected battery on Morris Island has cut off all hope of escape by running the vessel aground near Sumter and taking to the boats. Is it possible that Fort Sumter has been taken by the South Carolinians? If it has not, why does not Major Anderson show that he will protect us, or least recognize us in some way? To go within range of the guns of Fort Moultrie is to expose vessel, men, and stores to almost instant destruction, or to capture by the enemy.[10]

At this point, Fort Moultrie opened fire, but its distance was too great, and the shot missed the Star of the West by nearly .5 miles.[11] The hidden batteries at Morris Island continued to fire as well.[12] “We continued on under fire of the battery for over ten minutes, several of the shots going clean over us,” Captain McGowan reported. “One passed between the smoke-stack and walking-beams of the engine. Another struck the ship just abaft the fore-rigging, and stove in the planking; and another came within an ace of carrying away the rudder.”[13] Davis suggested to Anderson that Sumter should fire upon Moultrie. Anderson seemed to agree, but just as he was to give the order, Lieutenant Meade cautioned him. Any return fire would begin civil war, and, additionally, the governor could easily dismiss South Carolina’s firing as an accident caused by overzealous officers and troops. “One of the officers was very anxious to fire, if but once, but Maj. Anderson replied that he would, at every hazard, avoid the shedding of the first drop of blood. ‘If it must come,’” Anderson stated on the parapet, “’let it come from our opponents first. On their hands be the crime of bathing their hands in their own brothers’ blood.’”[14] Two days later, Anderson reiterated his position in a private letter. “I was sorely tempted to open my battery, but, perhaps fortunately, for the chance of having matters settled without bloodshed, I could not have touched the battery that opened upon her,” he explained. Lack of preparations caused Anderson to err on the side of caution. “My defenses were just then in such a condition that I could not have opened the war,” he claimed.[15] As Anderson ordered his officers to his quarters for a War Council, a sixth shot was fired from the hidden battery, two South Carolina steamers and a schooner began to depart Fort Moultrie to intercept the unarmed U.S. vessel, and the Star of the West began its turn out of the harbor.[16] “Helm out of port,” the captain shouted. “We turn without accident, and steam away, with the stars and stripes still floating, and the battery still playing upon us by way of a parting salute.”[17] It was perfectly clear, the commanding infantry officer on board the Star of the West, Lieutenant Charles Woods reported, that the “Charlestonians were perfectly aware of our coming.”[18]

Distraught over the firing on a vessel bearing the U.S. flag, Anderson met with his officers in council. The men were almost evenly divided over what course to take, and feelings, especially after seeing the American flag attacked for the time, “impressed each one” deeply. To begin the proceedings, Anderson recommended that they vote to close the harbor to all vessels. He also noted his last orders from the War Department which had cautioned against any actions which might “precipitate hostilities.” Lieutenants Hall and Snyder and Captain Doubleday argued for immediate retaliation. Lieutenants Meade and Davis called for forbearance, desiring an explanation from Governor Pickens. Meade especially feared the outbreak of civil war should Fort Sumter act in any hostile manner. Crawford agreed with Meade and Davis, only because the event was over. The fort had missed its opportunity to protect its honor vigorously. Now, even protest would be half-hearted and make the fort and its men appear weak. Though Foster and Seymour were also at the war council, no record exists for either of their recommendations. But, given Foster’s 1866 report to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War as well as the reaction to the council recorded below, he almost certainly must have favored immediate retaliation. With a divided council, Anderson decided to write the governor, demanding an explanation and threatening to close the harbor to all traffic.[19]

By the time the War Council finished, the battle was over, and the steamer departed from the area.[20] During the one-sided melee, South Carolinian forces had fired a total of seventeen shots.[21] Furious, Captain Foster ran out of the meeting, “smashing his hat, and muttering something about the flag, of which the words ‘trample on it’ reached the ears of the men at the guns.”[22] Not surprisingly, Doubleday was also furious at Anderson’s decision, noting, probably correctly, that the South Carolinians would lose all respect for the men at the fort. “I think the people in Fort Moultrie, who expected to be driven out to take refuge behind the sand-hills, were especially astonished at our inaction,” he wrote in his memoirs.[23] Anderson’s failure to act when the U.S. flag had been fired upon, could only diminish the psychological deterrent, preventing the southerners to attack the fort. “After the Star of the West affair,” the South Carolinians “probably thought we were very harmless people,” Doubleday lamented.[24] Certainly, the words of the Charleston Courier the next day seemed to confirm the New Yorker’s fears. “The first gun of the new struggle for independence, (if struggle there is to be) has been fired,” the paper claimed, “and Federal power has received its first repulse.”[25] Even more revealing, the South Carolina government, through the office of Governor Pickens, determined upon the best way to reduce Fort Sumter on the same day as the newspaper report. “We are unanimously and decidedly of the opinion that—discarding all other methods of attack upon that fortress (whether by surprise, by open assault, or by stratagem), as uncertain in their results, and as, even if successful, involving probably much sacrifice of life—our dependence and sole reliance must be upon batteries of heavy ordinance, at least until a deep impression has been made upon the garrison, in its morale as well as in its physique, by an incessant bombardment and cannonade of many hours duration,” the report stated.[26] Anderson’s refusal to defend an American vessel opened his own position to attack.

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[1] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 102.

[2] “The Firing on the ‘Star of the West,’” Harper’s Weekly (January 26, 1861); and “Capt. McGowan’s Report,” reprinted in Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, With Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc. (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1861), 21. The Confederates, after the Star of the West incident, always referred to the battery simply as the “Star of the West Battery.” See Pressely, “The Wee Nee Volunteers,” 485.

[3] “The Firing on the ‘Star of the West,’” Harper’s Weekly (January 26, 1861).

[4] Captain McGowan to the Editor of the New York Times, January 14, 1861, in New York Times (January 15, 1861), pg. 4. Charles Wood confirms this in Charles Woods to Colonel H.L. Scott, January 13, 1861, in Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, vol. 1, pg. 10.

[5] Captain McGowan to the Editor of the New York Times, January 14, 1861, in New York Times (January 15, 1861), pg. 4.

[6] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 102.

[7] Davis, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 61.

[8] Davis, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 60-61.

[9] Crawford, Genesis, 186.

[10] “The Firing on the ‘Star of the West,’” Harper’s Weekly (January 26, 1861).

[11] Davis, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 61.

[12] “Account of the Firing into the ‘Star of the West’ Taken from the Charleston Courier, of January 10 th , 1861, in Harris, ed., Record, 24.

[13] “The Firing on the ‘Star of the West,’” Harper’s Weekly (January 26, 1861).

[14] “The Disunion Crisis,” New York Times (February 7, 1861), pg. 2.

[15] Anderson, January 11, 1861, in New York Times (January 29, 1861), pg. 4.

[16] Crawford, Genesis, 186; “Account of the Firing into the ‘Star of the West’ Taken from the Charleston Courier, of January 10 th , 1861, in Harris, ed., Record, 24; and “The Firing on the ‘Star of the West,’” Harper’s Weekly (January 26, 1861).

[17] “The Firing on the ‘Star of the West,’” Harper’s Weekly (January 26, 1861); and “The Condition of Fort Sumter,” New York Times (January 19, 1861), pg. 1.

[18] Charles Woods to Colonel H.L. Scott, January 13, 1861, in O.R., vol. 1, pg. 10.

[19] The proceedings of the War Council are in Crawford, Genesis, 187-188. Foster offers a brief description as well in “Report of Major General J.G. Foster,” 7.

[20] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 104.

[21] “Return of the Star of the West,” New York Times (January 14, 1861), pg. 1

[22] Crawford, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 61.

[23] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 103.

[24] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 106.

[25] “Account of the Firing into the ‘Star of the West,’ Taken from the Charleston Courier, of January 10, 1861,” in Harris, ed., Record of Fort Sumter, 23.

26 “Report of Walter Gwynn, Edward B. White, J.H. Trapier and Edward Manigault to Governor Pickens, in Relation to Batteries to Reduce Fort Sumter,” in Harris, ed., Record of Fort Sumter, 21-22.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is an engraving of the bombardment of Fort Sumter (1863) by artist George Edward Perine (1837-1885); the picture above is a depiction of the steamship Star of the West (1861). Both are licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.  

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    • Dear Reader: If you click on the category at top, “Bradley Birzer Fort Sumter Series,” you will find the other essays in this series.

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