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Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Fort Sumter Resupply Mission, January 9, 2006

Today in 1861, the Star of the West, a civilian merchant ship, was fired upon as it attempted to bring supplies the Fort Sumter, an army post located in the middle of the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. While this incident did not begin the American Civil War, it was a sign that a shooting war was destined to begin.

The causes of the Civil War were many and they dated back to the very beginning of the United States. In fact, arguments over the continuation of slavery even came up before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. By the mid-1800’s, the northern and southern halves of the United States were two very different places. The north was densely populated, industrialized and wealthy by comparison. The south depended more on agriculture to drive the economy and was, in general, poorer. It is interesting to note that our modern notion of anti-slavery groups starting in the northern states is false. By 1850, more people belonged to anti-slavery groups in the southern states than the north. It is also important to remember that only a small percentage of southern Americans every actually owned slaves. To the non-slave holding southerner, the fight between North and South was more about secession from a union where northern states held much of the power, both politically and financially.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. The US Army (soon to be referred to as the Union Army) still occupied Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor and the virtually indefensible Fort Moultrie on shore. Major Robert Anderson, in charge of the forces at both forts, abandoned Fort Moultrie and pulled all his troops to Fort Sumter. He did not intend to surrender the well-built fort without a fight, but he and his 80 men would have to be supplied from the sea. The South Carolinian government had already demanded that US troops be pulled from the area, so it was doubtful that a re-supply mission would succeed without a hitch.

President James Buchanan, serving out the last few months of his presidency, was in a bad spot. He would not abandon the fort and order Major Anderson to withdraw. He also was not willing to start a war over the fort. Finally, a compromise plan was reached: a civilian transport would be sent to Fort Sumter. Surely, the rebels would not fire on unarmed civilians.

The Star of the West left New York harbor on January 5th, 1861. Two days after she left, Secretary of War Joseph Holt received a dispatch from Major Anderson at Sumter. The Major said that he had sufficient supplies for the time being and that re-supply was not needed immediately. He also said that the rebels were building gun emplacements overlooking the main harbor channel. The Secretary of War tried to contact the ship, but ship-to-shore communications being what they were in 1861, he failed.

On the morning of the 9th, the Star of the West steamed into Charleston Harbor. A rebel battery on Morris Island, manned by cadets from the Citadel, fired two shots at the civilian ship. Both missed. The batter continued to fire, eventually hitting the Star but causing little damage. The guns of Fort Sumter did not fire in support of the ship, fearing that doing so would inflame the situation. The Star of the West changed course and headed home.
On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began when a Confederate battery opened fire on Fort Sumter. The bloodiest war in US history, eighty years in the making, was underway.

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