The Star of the West reached Charleston Harbor in the early morning darkness of the 9th. She was supposed to have been escorted by the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn, but the Brooklyn had not caught up yet. The 200 troops of the 9th U.S. Infantry had orders to hide below decks to avoid detection, but there was no need. The Charlestonians already knew about the ship’s impending arrival and left no lights on to help her enter the harbor. The vessel had to wait until dawn to continue, and when she did so, she was immediately spotted.
Ship Captain John McGowan answered no signals demanding that he identify himself; he instead raised a large U.S. flag to attract the attention of Major Robert Anderson’s isolated Federal garrison in Fort Sumter. Anderson still had not gotten any official word of the mission and therefore did not know McGowan’s intent. The South Carolinians quickly manned their batteries as the Star of the West sailed within range of the guns on Morris Island. The gunners there were cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, or The Citadel. At 6 a.m., the cadets opened fire.
The first shot was a warning across the Star’s bow. Soon batteries from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island also opened fire. A ricochet struck the vessel’s fore-chains, and then the Star sustained a second hit. That was enough for McGowan, who decided that the mission was too dangerous and ordered his ship to back out of the harbor and go back to New York.
The vessel got no assistance from the Federals at Fort Sumter. Anderson ordered some of his batteries to prepare for action, but knowing that retaliation would spark a war, he would not fire without definitive orders from Washington. Anderson instead wrote South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens demanding an explanation why “your batteries fired this morning upon an unarmed vessel bearing the flag of my Government.” Anderson wrote:
“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… if it be not disclaimed… I must regard it as an act of war, and that I shall not, after a reasonable time for the return of my messenger, permit any vessels to pass within range of the guns of my fort.”
Pickens responded that “certain statements” in Anderson’s letter “very plainly show that you have not been fully informed by your Government of the precise relations which now exist between it and the State of South Carolina.” He explained that all political connections between South Carolina and the Federal government had been cut, and that President James Buchanan had been warned that if Anderson had been reinforced or changed his position in the harbor, South Carolinians would regard it as a hostile act. Pickens went on:
“It will suffice to say that the occupancy of that fort (Sumter) has been regarded by the State of South Carolina as the first act of positive hostility committed by the troops of the United States within the limits of this State… The attempt to re-enforce the troops now at Fort Sumter… cannot be regarded by the authorities of the State as indicative of any other purpose than the coercion of the State by the armed force of the Government… the Star of the West, it is understood, this morning attempted to enter this harbor, with troops on board, and having been notified that she could not enter, was fired into. The act is perfectly justified by me. In regard to your threat in regard to vessels in the harbor, it is only necessary to say that you must judge of your own responsibilities. Your position in this harbor has been tolerated by the authorities of the State, and… it is not perceived how far the conduct which you propose to adopt can find a parallel in the history of any country, or be reconciled with any other purpose of your Government than that of imposing upon this State the condition of a conquered province.”
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 “powder has been burnt over the decree of our State, timber has been crashed, perhaps blood spilled. South Carolina had fired “the opening ball of the Revolution… She 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: “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, Governor Pickens assigned engineers to study the possibility of bombarding Fort Sumter into submission, but they reported that it could not be done with the current armament in the harbor. So since Pickens could not force Anderson out of Fort Sumter and Anderson had orders to stay on the defensive, both sides settled into an uneasy truce for now.
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