As the sun rose over Charleston Harbor on Dec. 21, 1860, the morning after South Carolina declared itself an independent republic distinctly separate from the United States of America, U.S. Maj. Robert Anderson had some hard decisions to make.
Anderson, commander of the 70 or so Federal troops stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, as well as a former West Point professor and renowned military strategist, knew he and his men were in a vulnerable position. Fort Moultrie had been built to defend Charleston against naval attacks. It was never designed to defend against a land attack by the South Carolina militia.
Even before the Ordinance of Secession was signed, a group of South Carolina’s elected officials had met with President James Buchanan in Washington, demanding the U.S. surrender all forts within the state, including Moultrie and Sumter, as well as other military assets. While Buchanan didn’t want to start a civil war during his final weeks in office, he also was unwilling to hand over the forts.
In trying to find a way out of this sticky situation, Buchanan assured the South Carolina delegation that he would not reinforce Charleston’s forts until a peaceful transfer of the properties could be arranged, in return for the Carolinians’ promise that they would not attack the forts until those negotiations had been successfully concluded. Knowing that Anderson did not have enough men to hold multiple forts and other local military assets, however, Buchanan sent orders for Anderson to not surrender, but to use his discretion as to where he felt he should take a stand.
The interior of Fort Sumter had not even been completed when Anderson made his hasty retreat to the new fort between 6 and 8 p.m. during the dark evening of Dec. 26, 1860. Immediately upon their arrival, Anderson sent a message to Samuel Cooper, Adjutant General of the U.S. Army, that he had secured Fort Sumter. He also noted that he had a year’s worth of medical supplies and about four months’ of food and other provisions with him.
President Buchanan’s first inclination was to send Anderson additional supplies, including small arms and troops, using the war sloop Brooklyn, with 18 mounted cannons. He reconsidered this, however, after receiving word that the South Carolinians had begun blocking its harbor’s entrance by sinking several ships in its channel. That being the case, a warship as large and with a draft as heavy as the Brooklyn’s could probably not safely enter the harbor.
Thus, Buchanan decided to send the supplies on what appeared to be a humanitarian mission of delivering food and medicine on a smaller, unarmed merchant ship, the Star of the West, and he assigned the Brooklyn to be its military escort en route to Fort Sumter. The 200 Federal soldiers also aboard the Star were told to remain below deck, out of sight. Buchanan surmised that if the South Carolinians fired on an unarmed merchant ship, they would clearly be seen as the aggressor in starting the war.
Knowledge that the two ships had set out from New York on Jan. 5 was a very poorly kept secret that left S.C. Gov. Francis W. Pickens caught between a rock and a hard place. While on the surface it looked as if the Star of the West was on a humanitarian mission, there was good reason to suspect that additional arms and soldiers were also onboard. Pickens could hardly allow an enemy force to maintain – and indeed reinforce – a military presence in the middle of the state’s principal harbor.
Shortly after the ships departed, U.S. Secretary of War Joseph Holt received a follow-up communication from Maj. Anderson noting that they still had several months’ worth of provisions left and were not in immediate need of reprovisioning. He also reported that the local militia was arming its military resources around Charleston’s Harbor.
By 1:30 a.m. Jan. 9, the Star of the West was sitting off Charleston’s coastline and by dawn had begun slowly moving into the channel that led to Fort Sumter. The Brooklyn remained well outside the bar and outside the range of engagement.
A militia unit that included cadets from the S.C. Military Academy – more popularly known as the Citadel – were stationed with a large cannon at Cummings Point on Morris Island under their banner – a palmetto tree on a red field. That flag, known as Big Red, is displayed in the Citadel’s Holliday Alumni Center today. As the Star of the West moved into range, the cadets fired.
The first was a proper warning shot across the bow, advising the ship to turn around. It did not. Two close shots followed the first before the fourth shot squarely hit the merchant ship’s deck, though it suffered only minor damage. Some consider this event, rather than those of April 12, to have been the true “first shots” of the Civil War.
Hearing the shots from Morris Island alerted the state militia that had moved into Fort Moultrie and they , too, began to fire on the merchant ship. Two more cannon balls found their mark. The Star of the West began to turn around and head out of the harbor.
Maj. Anderson, as he watched the confrontation anxiously from Fort Sumter, dutifully followed his orders to not fire his guns unless the fort was attacked. His commitment to those orders probably prevented the Civil War from starting that morning. Nor were any shots returned from the Star of the West or the Brooklyn. Instead, the two ships abandoned their mission and headed home to New York. For now, both sides continued to sit tight, waiting tensely for what was beginning to look more than ever like an inevitable war.