Sunday, January 09, 2011

January 9, 1861: War Is Narrowly Averted

The Civil War almost began on Wednesday, January 9, 1861, when the Star of the West was fired upon in Charleston harbor.

The Star of the West, a merchant steamer full of supplies and reinforcements for Fort Sumter which had set sail from New York on January 5, arrived at the entrance to Charleston harbor around midnight.  As soon as there was enough light to see, the ship headed into the harbor.

Gunners on Morris Island, cadets from the Citadel, began firing at the ship.  One shot smashed into the side of the Star of the West.  A steamer flying the U.S. flag and carrying U.S. troops had been fired upon and hit.

The commander at Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, didn't know what was going on.  He was unaware that a relief ship was even on the way, but he and his men could see that the Charlestonians were preparing for something.  The War Department had sent a telegraph explaining the situation and giving him orders to return fire "should a fire, likely to prove injurious, be opened upon any vessel bringing up re-enforcements or supplies, or upon row-boats within the reach of your guns."  The message never reached Anderson and now he held his fire and certainly averted a war.  With Fort Sumter's guns silent the Star of the West had no choice but to turn around and head back out to open sea.

The garrison at Fort Sumter was in an uproar.  The officers and men were furious that Anderson had not returned fire.  Anderson met with the officers and they agreed to write to Governor Francis Pickens.  If he had authorized the attack, Anderson might close down the harbor.

Pickens replied that South Carolina was an independent nation and that putting troops in Fort Sumter and then sending in reinforcements was an act of aggression.  The firing was justified.  If Anderson must now use his guns to close down the harbor, the responsibility was his own.

Pickens added, "Your position in this harbor has been tolerated by the 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.

Also on this date, Mississippi became the first state to follow South Carolina out of the Union.  A state convention in Mississippi voted for secession 84-to-15.

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