The steamship “Star of the West” was fired on approaching Fort Sumter today in 1861 now recognized as the actual first shots of the American Civil War. Now WE know em


The 1860 U.S. presidential election was held on Tuesday, November 6, 1860.

Republican Abraham Lincoln won the election even though he opposed the expansion of slavery into United States’ territories.

As a result of Lincoln’s victory, on December 24, 1860 South Carolina adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” thus seceding from the United States.

This document argued for states’ rights for slave owners in the South, but also contained a complaint about states’ rights in the North in the form of opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, claiming that Northern states were not fulfilling their federal obligations under the U.S. Constitution.

“Star of the West”

Then in early January of 1861, the War Department chartered the “Star of the West” to transport military supplies and reinforcements to the garrison of Fort Sumter.


Star of the West

Star of the West

Star of the West was a 1,172 ton civilian steamship built by Jeremiah Simonson, of New York for Cornelius Vanderbilt, and launched June 17, 1852. Her length was 228.3 feet with a beam of 32.7 feet, with wooden hullside paddle wheels and two masts.

The Star of the West started service between New York and San Juan de Nicaragua on October 20, 1852 and continued this service for Charles Morgan from July 1853 to March 1856.

In June 1857, Star of the West started the New York to Aspinwall service for the United States Mail Steamship Company until September 1859 when it went onto the New York, Havana, New Orleans service.


Star of the West approaching Fort Sumter. Illustration from Frank Leslie's Weekly.

Star of the West approaching Fort Sumter. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Weekly.

Then on January 9, 1861, Star of the West was fired on by South Carolina cadets stationed at the Morris Island Citadel as the ship entered Charleston Harbor.

Star of the West was given a warning shot across the bow and then hit three times by what were effectively the first shots of the American Civil War.

Although Star of the West did not suffer any major damage, her captain, John McGowan, considered it too dangerous to continue and turned about to leave the harbor.

With the mission abandoned, Star of the West was prevented from resupplying Major Robert Anderson’s garrison at Fort Sumter, and headed for her home port of New York Harbor.

Even before Abraham Lincoln took office, seven states had declared their secession from the Union.

They established a Southern government, the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861.

They took control of federal forts and other properties within their boundaries with little resistance from outgoing President James Buchanan.


Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln at the Capitol on March 4, 1861

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln at the Capitol on March 4, 1861

Then during his inaugural address March 4, 1861, President Lincoln declared his administration would not initiate civil war and argued that the Constitution was a more perfect union than the earlier Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, that it was a binding contract, and called any secession “legally void.” His speech closed with a plea for restoration of the bonds of union.

A peace conference failed to find a compromise, and both sides prepared for war.

The Star of the West was hired out of New York as a troop transport for $1,000 a day under its master, Elisha Howes.

Star of the West sailed for Texas to pick up seven companies of United States troops assembled at Indianola.

Then on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter, a key fort held by Union troops in South Carolina, President Lincoln called for each state to provide troops to retake the fort and the American Civil War was officially underway.

On April 18, 1861, while anchored off Pass Caballo bar leading into Matagorda Bay, the Star of the West was captured by Colonel Earl Van Dorn and members of two Galveston militia units, the Wigfall Guards and the Island City Rifles.

Two days later the ship was taken to New Orleans where Louisiana’s Governor Moore changed its name to CSS St. Philip. The old name persisted, however, and Star of the West served as a naval station and hospital ship until Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans.

Still under Confederate control, Star of the West escaped recapture by transporting millions in gold, silver, and paper currency to Vicksburg and continued to Yazoo City, Mississippi. When federal Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith tried to lead two ironclads and five smaller vessels through the Yazoo Pass into the Tallahatchie River to attack Vicksburg from the rear, Confederate defenders hurriedly constructed Fort Pemberton, and Major General William W. Loring had Star of the West sunk broadside in the Tallahatchie near Greenwood to block the passage of the Union flotilla.

Following the war, the owners of Star of the West collected $175,000 in damages from the United States government for their loss.

Now WE know em


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