Tag Archives: Francis W. Pickens

Lee Takes Coastal Command

November 15, 1861 – One week after taking command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida, General Robert E. Lee met with South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens to discuss the military situation along the coast.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee arrived at Savannah on November 8 and assumed command of the new department. His primary responsibility was to protect coastal defenses, but after learning of the Federal capture of Port Royal, he called this “another forlorn hope expedition–worse than West Virginia.”

There was little manpower to defend the coast, and the superior Federal navy could strike wherever it pleased. Thus, Lee abandoned most of the coastline to focus more on key defensive points such as Fort Pulaski, guarding Savannah. A South Carolina woman wrote about Lee in her diary: “Preux chevalier, booted and bridled and gallant rode he, but so far his bonnie face had only brought us ill luck.”

Lee met with Pickens a week later. The men agreed that Pickens would arm enough men to fill two regiments, with the men serving for the war’s duration. Lee would issue 2,500 rifles shipped aboard the C.S.S. Fingal to South Carolina units that also pledged to serve for the duration.

As Lee hastened to strengthen defenses, a Federal naval squadron (U.S.S. Flag, August, Pocahontas, Savannah, and Seneca) led by Commander John Rodgers followed up their capture of Port Royal by landing troops on Tybee Island on Georgia’s Savannah River. This controlled the entrance to Savannah Harbor and established a base from which to attack Fort Pulaski.

fortpulaski

Neither Lee nor Brigadier General Alexander Lawton (commanding the District of Georgia in Lee’s department) could prevent the island’s capture, and the Federals scored another victory along the coast. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported: “This abandonment of Tybee Island is due to the terror inspired by the bombardment of Forts Walker and Beauregard, and is a direct fruit of the victory of the 7th (capture of Port Royal).”

Lee met with Colonel Charles Olmstead, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Pulaski to assess the Federal threat from Tybee Island about a mile south. Lee informed Olmstead that if the Federals posted artillery on the island, “they will make it pretty hot for you with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.” The Federals soon targeted Fort Pulaski and other coastal points as Lee continued struggling to find the resources needed to defend them.

—–

References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 94, 97; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 129; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 81, 85; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3032; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 137-38, 143; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303-04; 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. 371; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 43

Lee Receives a New Assignment

November 5, 1861 – President Jefferson Davis reassigned General Robert E. Lee to command a new Confederate military department responsible for protecting the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By this time, Confederate officials knew of the Federal armada headed to attack Port Royal. Hoping to prevent that vital point from falling, Davis and Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin created the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. This combined all departments already within that area into six military districts. Five were in South Carolina, and the sixth, the District of Georgia, covered both Georgia and eastern Florida.

Davis summoned Lee to a meeting on the morning of the 5th. Although “Granny” Lee’s reputation had been tarnished by his less than stellar western Virginia campaign, Davis informed him that he would be the senior officer of the new department with full administration support. The department’s new jurisdiction would, according to Benjamin, “enable him (Lee) to concentrate all our forces at any point that might be attacked.”

Lee left Richmond the next morning. Opposition to Lee coming to command was so great that Davis had to write to Governors Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia assuring them that Lee was the best commander available. By that time, the Federal fleet had assembled off Port Royal and prepared to attack.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (November 5); Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2986, 2998; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 135; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303-04, 704; 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), Q461

The Fort Sumter Surrender

April 13, 1861 – The bombardment of Fort Sumter ended when Major Robert Anderson agreed to surrender his Federal garrison.

Confederate Flag over Fort Sumter | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate Flag over Fort Sumter | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Anderson’s men in Charleston Harbor ate their final rations of rice and pork before Confederates resumed the bombardment on the morning of the 13th. Hotshot ignited three fires before dawn, with one nearly reaching the powder magazine. Federals began suffering from smoke inhalation as the shelling intensified, and their shortage of cartridges minimized their return fire. Gustavus V. Fox’s relief fleet could not enter the harbor due to the intense artillery fire. Moreover, there was no established signal code for Anderson and Fox to communicate.

In Washington, rumors abounded that Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter. President Abraham Lincoln met with Virginia officials and explained that he considered himself obligated to “hold, occupy, and possess, the property, and places belonging to the Government.” He said he had no plans to invade the Confederacy for any other reason, but “I shall hold myself at liberty to re-possess, if I can,” property seized from the Federal government, including Fort Sumter.

Back at the fort, a shot knocked down Sumter’s flagstaff at 12:48 p.m. Colonel Louis T. Wigfall, former U.S. senator from Texas, saw the flag go down and took it upon himself to row out to the fort and discuss surrender without Confederate authorization. Major Anderson agreed to capitulate, and Federals raised the white flag. But soon afterward aides of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived to inform Anderson that Wigfall’s visit had been unofficial, but they finally accepted Anderson’s surrender anyway around 2:30 p.m. The fort itself was still defensible, but Anderson felt the Federals could no longer man the defenses without supplies or ammunition.

The garrison fell after 33 hours of bombardment. Confederates had fired 3,341 shells at Sumter, destroying the barracks and the main gate, and pockmarking the fort walls. The Federals suffered no fatalities and sustained just four injuries from bricks falling from walls. The Federals fired about 1,000 shells. Four Confederates sustained injuries at Fort Moultrie; the only recorded death among Confederates was a horse. Surrender ceremonies were planned for the next afternoon.

General Beauregard telegraphed Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker: “We take possession of Fort Sumter tomorrow morning. I allow him the privilege of saluting his flag. No one killed on our side.” Walker relayed the news to President Jefferson Davis, who responded: “Thanks for your achievement and for your courtesy to the garrison of Sumter. If occasion offers, tender my friendly remembrance to Major Anderson.” Davis and Anderson were old friends, and Anderson had been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point.

When Charlestonians learned of the surrender, they cheered both their success and the bravery of Anderson and his men. A participant wrote, “Thank God the day has come—thank God the war is open, and we will conquer or perish.”

The news reached Virginia this evening, prompting Richmond residents to erupt in mass celebration “in honor of the victory,” even though the state had not yet seceded. A battery fired a 100-gun salute, and the U.S. flag above the state capitol was replaced by the Confederate banner. A witness wrote that everyone “seemed to be perfectly frantic with delight, I never in all my life witnessed such excitement. Everyone is in favor of secession.” Large crowds also celebrated in various cities in Tennessee and North Carolina, two other states that had not yet seceded.

When news reached the North, a New York newspaper reported, “The curtain has fallen upon the first act of the great tragedy of our age.”

The war’s first engagement resulted in Confederate victory, but it also gave Lincoln what he sought—the Confederacy had fired first. This would help his administration galvanize northerners to the cause of preserving the Union.

On Sunday the 14th, Major Anderson formally surrendered his Federal garrison to Confederate forces at Fort Sumter. He surrendered under the terms offered on the 11th. Many people witnessed the ceremony from boats in the harbor, including General Beauregard and Governor Francis W. Pickens.

Prominent Virginia secessionist Roger Pryor attended the surrender ceremony, which took place in Sumter’s hospital. Anderson was allowed to fire a 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag before lowering it the last time. After the 50th round, an accidental explosion occurred when Private Daniel Hough inserted a cartridge before swabbing out the sparks from the previous round. The blast killed Hough, and wind swept burning cloth to nearby cartridges, setting them off. These blasts mortally wounded one private and injured four. These were the only casualties in the battle for Sumter. Anderson, shaken by the tragedy, ended the salute at 50 guns.

Two hours later, the Federals marched out of Sumter with their colors as musicians played “Yankee Doodle.” Confederate soldiers along the beaches removed their hats in salute, and spectators observed in silence. The Federals boarded the transport steamer Isabel, where they would spend the night before returning north with the rest of Gustavus V. Fox’s relief fleet that had arrived too late to save them.

Celebrations and special church services took place in Charleston. Governor Pickens declared, “We have met them and we have conquered.” Reverend J.H. Elliott at St. Michael’s Church compared Sumter to a biblical battle in which the Israelites “fully achieved their object, and were now returned in safety to their tents without the loss of a single comrade.” He expressed thanks to God and concluded: “His Providence is fast uniting the whole South in a common brotherhood of sympathy and action, and our first essay in arms has been crowned with perfect success.”

Charlestonians entertained some of the Federals in the city this evening. Anderson said, “Our Southern brethren have done grievously wrong, they have rebelled and have attacked their father’s house and their loyal brothers. They must be punished and brought back, but this necessity breaks my heart.”

To the Confederates, the presence of a foreign military force on their soil constituted a challenge to their new national credibility and had to be confronted. To northerners, the national honor had been desecrated by rebels firing upon the Federal military. Lincoln had hoped that provoking the Confederacy into firing the first shot would stimulate northern patriotism, and he was right.

On April 15, the Federal garrison left Fort Sumter aboard the steamer Isabel, which ferried them to U.S.S. Baltic within Gustavus V. Fox’s Federal naval fleet. The war had begun.

—–

Sources

  • Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 30-32
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 160-61, 163
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 34-35
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 50
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 21-22
  • Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 108-09
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 57-59
  • 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. 277-78
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279-80

Fort Sumter: The Relief Expedition Proceeds

April 4, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln notified special agent Gustavus V. Fox that the relief expedition to Fort Sumter would go ahead.

By April 2nd, the Confederate envoys in Washington had lost faith in Secretary of State William H. Seward’s pledge that President Lincoln would evacuate Fort Sumter. After conferring with Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, the envoys telegraphed Confederate officials in Montgomery, Alabama: “The war wing presses on the President; he vibrates to that side… Their form of notice to us may be that of a coward, who gives it when he strikes.”

Abraham Lincoln, Gustavus V. Fox, and William H. Seward | Image Credit: Bing public domain, CivilWarDailyGazette.com, quod.lib.umich.edu

Abraham Lincoln, Gustavus V. Fox, and William H. Seward | Image Credit: Bing public domain, CivilWarDailyGazette.com, quod.lib.umich.edu

Meanwhile, supplies dwindled in Sumter, as Major Robert Anderson and his men no longer had access to Charleston for provisions. And the Confederates in Charleston Harbor made it clear no relief would be allowed; on the 3rd a battery at Morris Island fired on the U.S. schooner Rhoda H. Shannon as it approached.

Lincoln modified Fox’s plan before directing him to proceed on the 4th: instead of fighting their way into Fort Sumter, Fox’s naval fleet would only deliver supplies to the Federal garrison. Warships would accompany the fleet, but if the Confederates did not fire on them, the Federals would show no aggression. In this way, the Confederates would be considered the aggressors if they fired on ships merely bringing “food for hungry men.”

Lincoln informed Major Anderson at Sumter that “the expedition will go forward…” and would most likely arrive on the 11th or 12th. Lincoln left it to Anderson’s discretion whether he and his men could hold out that long, and assured him that if the Confederates resisted, the relief fleet “will endeavor also to reinforce you.” Anderson was permitted to respond to any Confederate act of aggression as he saw fit.

On the 6th, Seward notified Lincoln of his pledge to the Confederate envoys in Washington that Fort Sumter “would not be reinforced without prior notice.” Lincoln responded by dispatching State Department clerk Robert S. Chew and Captain Theodore Talbot (recently returned from Sumter) to Charleston with a message for South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens:

“I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.”

This message sought to assure the South Carolinians that the Federals had no aggressive intentions, but it wiped out any chance that the Federals at Sumter could be secretly supplied or reinforced.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron delivered Lincoln’s letter to Anderson on the 7th, informing the major that relief was on the way and “You will therefore hold out, if possible, till the arrival of the expedition.” Meanwhile, Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard prohibited Anderson from any further interaction between his Federals at Fort Sumter and the people of Charleston. The fort could now only be reached by sea.

Justice Campbell wrote to Seward, asking if a naval fleet had been dispatched to relieve Sumter, and if Seward’s past assurances had been disingenuous. Seward wrote back, “Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and see.” Campbell believed this meant that Seward’s pledge to evacuate Sumter would be kept, but Seward meant that Sumter would not be relieved without prior notification. This delay in interpretation gave the Lincoln administration more time to build up military forces. Campbell forwarded Seward’s reply to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

On the morning of April 8, the Federal revenue cutter Harriet Lane left New York to join the relief fleet. That same day, Chew and Talbot arrived at Charleston and delivered Lincoln’s message to Governor Pickens. Pickens forwarded the message to General Beauregard, who telegraphed Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker in Montgomery: “An authorized messenger from President Lincoln just informed Governor Pickens and myself that provisions will be sent to Fort Sumter peaceably, or otherwise by force.”

Beauregard placed all forts in the harbor on alert, and Confederate forces in Charleston began mobilizing for defense. An erroneous report appeared in a city newspaper announcing that war had begun.

That same day, Major Anderson wrote to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas protesting the relief mission in an attempt to prevent war. Anderson asked Thomas to destroy the letter once received because it could be seen as insubordinate to Lincoln. Confederates intercepted this letter and forwarded it to President Davis, a friend of Anderson’s, who saw that he was not part of the administration’s scheme to resupply the fort.

The Confederate envoys in Washington, after receiving assurances from Seward that Sumter would be evacuated, sent a dispatch to Beauregard through Martin J. Crawford: “Accounts uncertain, because of the constant vacillation of this Government. We were reassured yesterday that the status of Sumter would not be changed without previous notice to Governor Pickens, but we have no faith in them. The war policy prevails in the Cabinet at this time.”

Seward unofficially informed the envoys that the administration sought peace and would only fight if their possessions were attacked. At the same time, the relief expedition was on its way to Sumter.

—–

Sources

  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 36-38
  • Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 30-32
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4812-25, 4872, 4986, 5022-27
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135-41, 146-69
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 32-33
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6143
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 47
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 19-20
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 53-55
  • 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. 270-71
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 56, 58-59
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 36-38
  • 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-Q261

Fort Sumter: The Lincoln Administration Vacillates

March 21, 1861 – Special Federal agent Gustavus V. Fox arrived at Charleston, South Carolina to assess the situation at Fort Sumter.

On March 20, the Confederate envoys seeking to negotiate a peaceful settlement of disputes over Federal property on Confederate soil (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) telegraphed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston. The envoys asked if the Federals were preparing to evacuate Fort Sumter, as Secretary of State William H. Seward had pledged on the 15th. Beauregard replied that the Federals were building defenses and showed no sign of evacuating.

Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, intermediary between the Lincoln administration and the Confederate envoys, brought this news to Seward. The secretary assured both him and fellow Justice Samuel Nelson that the administration’s policy would be peaceful coexistence with the Confederacy, and any delay in evacuating the fort was unintentional. Seward did not reply to two notes written by Campbell accusing him of overreaching his authority and vacillating. Meanwhile, officials released some correspondence between Seward and the Confederate envoys to the press, which caused indignation in the North.

Gustavus V. Fox | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Gustavus V. Fox | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fox reached Charleston the next day. South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens, skeptical of Fox’s mission but reluctant to spark a diplomatic issue by expelling him, permitted Fox to visit the Federal troops at Fort Sumter and notify Washington of their condition. Permission depended “expressly upon the pledge of ‘pacific purposes.’”

Confederates escorted Fox to the fort in the harbor. Unbeknownst to them, Fox used the visit to gather intelligence on how best Sumter could be resupplied. The escorts tried preventing Fox from meeting privately with Major Robert Anderson, commanding at Fort Sumter. Fox could only hint to Anderson that help may be on the way. After touring the fort, Fox informed Lincoln that Sumter could be reinforced by sea.

As Lincoln approved Fox’s reinforcement plan and authorized Fox to assemble a transport fleet in New York, Seward again assured Campbell that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. This helped ease Confederate fears that the Federals may try reinforcing the garrison.

Two more Federal agents, Colonel Ward Hill Lamon and General Stephen A. Hurlbut (both Illinois friends of President Lincoln), met with Governor Pickens and General Beauregard in Charleston on the 25th. Lamon conceded that reconciliation was impossible and said he was authorized to arrange for Sumter’s evacuation. He asked Pickens to allow a Federal warship into Charleston Harbor to evacuate the Federal garrison, but Pickens refused, asserting that permitting a foreign war vessel to enter the harbor could compromise his state’s sovereignty.

The men agreed that the Federals could be evacuated aboard a regular steamship, which Lamon said that Major Anderson preferred anyway. The meeting ended with Lamon expressing hope that he could return in a few days to direct the evacuation. Meanwhile, Fox continued assembling a naval fleet to reinforce Fort Sumter, despite Lamon’s pledge and Anderson’s strong urging to evacuate the fort.

In Washington, Republican Lyman Trumbull of Illinois introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that “it is the duty of the President to use all means in his power to hold and protect the public property of the United States.” A Republican caucus met with Lincoln and warned him that surrendering Sumter would be disastrous for the new party.

Lincoln continued consulting with advisors about the mounting crisis. Hurlbut returned from Charleston on the 27th and reported: “Separate Nationality is a fixed fact… there is no attachment to the Union…positively nothing to appeal to.” Hurlbut opined that any effort to resupply Fort Sumter would be considered an act of war; even “a ship known to contain only provisions for Sumpter (sic) would be stopped and refused admittance.” Reinforcing Hurlbut’s opinion, Governor Pickens notified delegates to the South Carolina Convention that 600 men were needed to defend the Charleston Harbor forts.

On March 28, Lincoln received a message from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott advising him to abandon both Forts Sumter and Pickens (in Florida). Scott noted that he and his officers had already assumed Sumter would be evacuated, but the “evacuation of both the forts would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States, and render their cordial adherence to the Union perpetual.” Scott acknowledged that Lincoln would have the final say.

The idea of abandoning both forts shocked Lincoln, but he concealed his emotions until after holding an official state dinner. Then he summoned his cabinet officers into an emergency meeting, where they expressed “blank amazement” as Lincoln read Scott’s dispatch.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair accused Scott of playing politics, especially since the Confederates could not possibly seize Fort Pickens by force. In a reversal of their vote two weeks ago, four of the six officers present (Secretary of War Simon Cameron was absent) now supported reinforcing Sumter, with only Seward and Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith opposed. The cabinet unanimously supported reinforcing Pickens.

—–

Sources

  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4752, 4776-88, 4847-59
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133, 135
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 31
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6053-64
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 46
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 51
  • 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. 269
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 53, 56
  • White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War

The Star of the West Mission

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.

Star of the West | Image Credit: Library of Congress

Star of the West | Image Credit: Library of Congress

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.

—–

Sources

  • 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