Sunday, January 9, 2011

January 9, 1861 - Star of the West, Fort Johnston Seized, Mississippi Secedes

Fort Sumter with Morris Island in Distance (NPS Photo)
January 9, 1861

Three major events (into an independent nation. In North Carolina, the citizens of Southport moved on and seized Fort Johnston, an older military post near the mouth of the Cape Fear River below Wilmington.

In South Carolina, Major Robert Anderson in Fort Sumter was stunned by the sound of state artillery opening fire on the steamer Star of the West, which had arrived off Charleston Harbor with supplies, provisions and 200 reinforcements for the U.S. Army garrison in the beleaguered fort.

The Star of the West was a 220 foot steamer chartered from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt by the U.S. Government. On board were 200 picked recruits from Fort Columbus in New York Harbor, as well as a 3-month supply of provisions and other supplies that were desperately needed by the soldiers manning Fort Sumter. As she approached the entrance to Charleston Harbor, the ship was warned off by picket boats placed for that purpose by order of the Governor of South Carolina. Pursuant to her orders, however, the ship continued forward and fire was opened on her by cadets from The Citadel who manned a battery of artillery on Morris Island.

From Fort Sumter, Major Anderson immediately communicated with Governor F.W. Pickens of South Carolina:

Two of your batteries fired this morning upon an unarmed vessel bearing the flag of my Government. As I have not been notified that war has been declared by South Carolina against the Government of the United States, I cannot but think that this hostile act was committed without your sanction or authority. Under that hope, and that alone, did I refrain from opening fire on your batteries.- Major Robert Anderson, U.S. Army, January 9, 1861.

Anderson expressed to the governor his intent, if the act was not disavowed, to open his guns on any vessel that came within range. He also called the firing an "act of war."

Entrance of Charleston Harbor
In reply, Governor Pickens informed Major Anderson that the attempt of the Star of the West to enter the harbor was regarded as an act of war by that state. He also explained to Anderson that President Buchanan had been warned that any attempt to send troops or military supplies to Fort Sumter would be regarded as an intrusion upon the sovereignty of South Carolina:

In anticipation of the ordinance of secession, of which the President of the United States has received official notification, it was understood by him that sending any re-enforcement of the troops of the United States in the harbor of Charleston would be regarded by the constituted authorities of the State of South Carolina as an act of hostility, and at the same time it was understood by him that any change in the occupation of the forts in the harbor of Charleston would in like manner be regarded as an act of hostility. - Governor F.W. Pickens, January 9, 1861.

Pickens went on to explain the steps that had been taken by the state to warn off supply ships like the Star of the West and informed Anderson that the opening of fire on the vessel "is perfectly justified by me."

No one was injured in the firing on the Star of the West, which represented the second shots of the Civil War, as the cannon fire came on the heels of a volley from guard muskets at Fort Barrancas in Florida the previous day.  Please click here to learn more about the Fort Barrancas incident.

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