Attack upon ‘Star of the West’ – Actual First Shot of the Civil War?

The American Civil War, a four-year conflict between the North and South from 1861-65 primarily over the issues of slavery and states’ rights, was the most devastating conflict in the nation’s history. While there is debate over how many people were killed or wounded during the war, there is general agreement that the Civil War caused over a million military casualties, including more than 700,000 deaths, plus an unknown number of civilian casualties.

Most historians agree that the opening shot fired in the Civil War was the attack on Fort Sumter at 4:30 in the morning on 12 April 1861, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. However, recognition for firing the first shot of the war should perhaps go to a cadet from the South Carolina Military Academy (The Citadel), George Edward Haynesworth, for earlier firing a cannon at the merchant ship Star of the West, on 9 January 1861.

Illustration: a crowd gathers outside Gov. Francis Pickens’ house in Charleston, South Carolina, to hear the news of the firing on the “Star of the West,” 9 January 1861
Illustration: a crowd gathers outside Gov. Francis Pickens’ house in Charleston, South Carolina, to hear the news of the firing on the “Star of the West,” 9 January 1861. Credit: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper; Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since it seceded from the Union in December 1860, South Carolina had been demanding the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Rather than give the fort up, the Union hired a merchant steamer, the Star of the West, to transport troops and supplies to reinforce Major Robert Anderson’s garrison. On 9 January1861, the ship attempted to enter Charleston Harbor. Cadets from The Citadel were stationed at Morris Island manning a battery, and they opened fire upon the merchant vessel. When guns from nearby Fort Moultrie joined in the attack, the Star of the West abandoned its relief mission and headed back to New York Harbor.

News of this attack, predictably, created quite a stir. The Macon Telegraph rushed an account to its readers the next day. In its haste, the newspaper got an important detail wrong: the merchant ship was not sunk in the attack. The paper was also proved wrong in predicting an attack on Fort Sumter “in a few days,” and most obviously in calculating the impending war would last “about six months.” In its opening sentence, however, the paper was very much on target when it spoke of “the grand and terrible drama of civil war.”

An article about the firing upon the ship "Star of the West" by South Carolina militia, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 10 January 1861
Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 10 January 1861, page 1

Here is a transcription of this article:

THE BALL OPENED.

The transactions in Charleston yesterday open the grand and terrible drama of civil war. The sinking of the Star of the West was, as we are informed, the achievement of a battery on Morris’ Island, and the two hundred and fifty troops destined to reinforce Major Anderson’s garrison at Fort Sumter, were rescued from cold water by a ship passing out of port at the time.

Unquestionably this unsuccessful attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter will be promptly followed by an assault of the South Carolina troops on that Fortification, and we may expect to hear of bloody work in a few days. To leave it in possession of the enemy when a strong military and naval force may be soon daily expected from the North to “avenge the insult,” would be to invite destruction. The Palmettoes will take the Fort, or try to do it – for we fear it will prove a very difficult feat with their present means and appliances to accomplish.

Events will now crowd upon us rapidly. Histories will be born of a day. We anticipate active and unsparing efforts to subjugate the South and allow about six months for the North to get satisfied. She cannot do it.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors serve in the Civil War? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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