January 2, 1861 – President James Buchanan decided to resupply Major Robert Anderson’s Federal troops at Charleston, South Carolina.
By the end of 1860, South Carolina militia had isolated Anderson’s men at Fort Sumter, an island fortress in Charleston Harbor. The Federals would eventually need supplies, but they had been denied any further assistance from the state. A delegation of South Carolinians had come to Washington to demand that President Buchanan remove all troops from Charleston, but Buchanan rejected those demands on December 31. Two days later, the delegates responded:
“You have resolved to hold by force what you have obtained through our misplaced confidence, and by refusing to disavow the action of Major Anderson, have converted his violation of orders into a legitimate act of your executive authority… If you choose to force this issue upon us, the State of South Carolina will accept it…”
Buchanan read this letter to his cabinet and then returned it to the delegates. He refused to officially accept it due to the nature of its language, and this ended negotiations between his administration and South Carolina. Buchanan then resolved to dispatch supplies and reinforcements to Anderson’s “starving garrison.” After receiving almost unanimous support from his cabinet, Buchanan instructed Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army, to direct a relief expedition.
The sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn received orders to be ready at Norfolk, Virginia for troops and supplies. However, Scott persuaded Buchanan to send a civilian vessel instead to better protect the mission’s secrecy. This turned what could have been a simple relief expedition into a complex, clandestine operation. It also proved very expensive, as Assistant Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas contracted the merchant ship Star of the West for $1,250 per day. Federal officials hoped that this ship, which traveled regularly between New York and New Orleans, would not attract the South Carolinians’ attention.
Star of the West, headed by Captain John McGowan, left New York City on the night of January 5 with supplies and 200 troops. But any hope for secrecy quickly evaporated, as the New York press immediately began leaking rumors of the ship’s mission to southern sympathizers. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson, the last southerner in Buchanan’s cabinet, resigned not only because he expected his home state of Mississippi to secede, but because he opposed Star of the West’s mission. Before leaving office, Thompson telegraphed Charleston officials that the ship was coming.
Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas also learned of the secret plan and notified South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens. But while South Carolinians received word of the ship’s impending arrival, nobody from the War Department notified Anderson that help was coming. On the 8th, Anderson finally learned of the expedition by reading about it in the Charleston Mercury. But since he had yet to receive official word from his superiors, he did not act upon the news.
Star of the West reached Charleston Harbor near sunrise on the 9th and steamed up the main channel toward Fort Sumter. The 200 troops of the 9th U.S. Infantry had orders to hide below decks to avoid detection, but by this time the South Carolinians were prepared to meet them.
At 6 a.m., cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, or The Citadel, fired on Star of the West from Morris Island. Soon batteries from Fort Moultrie also opened fire. A shot went across the ship’s bow, and a ricochet struck the vessel’s fore-chains. After sustaining a second hit, Captain McGowan decided that the mission was too dangerous and ordered his ship to return to New York.
The Federals at Fort Sumter, unaware of the ship’s presence or mission, did not assist Star of the West. When Anderson officially learned about the mission, he demanded an apology from Governor Pickens for firing on an unarmed vessel bearing the U.S. flag. Pickens refused, arguing that a foreign vessel reinforcing foreign troops on South Carolinian soil could not be permitted because the state was now independent.
Southerners accused Buchanan of trying to provoke a war. Buchanan replied that he merely tried to execute his role as military commander-in-chief. He also argued that his entire cabinet had agreed with the mission, but former Interior Secretary Thompson angrily countered that he had been the lone dissenter before resigning. Thompson called the mission a breach of good faith toward South Carolina. Meanwhile, the South Carolina delegation returned to their state after proposing to meet with delegates of other seceded states at Montgomery, Alabama on February 4 to discuss forming a provisional government.
The Star of the West incident galvanized extremists on both sides. Charleston Mercury editor Robert B. Rhett wrote that South Carolina “has not hesitated to strike the first blow, full in the face of her insulter. We would not exchange or recall that blow for millions! It has wiped out a half century of scorn and outrage.” An editorial in the Atlas and Argus of Albany, New York voiced the prevailing northern opinion by stating, “The authority and dignity of the Government must be vindicated at every hazard. The issue thus having been made, it must be met and sustained, if necessary, by the whole power of the navy and army.”
President Buchanan still hoped that cooler heads would prevail, so he ordered Anderson to take no offensive action while preparing to defend the garrison. At the same time, Anderson rejected Governor Pickens’s demands to surrender Fort Sumter to South Carolina.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 3757, 3815-27
- Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-27
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 7, 9
- Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 69-70
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 20-25
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 265-66
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 45-46
- Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving, The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 180
- White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
- Wikipedia: Star of the West; Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War