by Andy Turner
As noted in Monday’s article, “The first shot of the war? Part 1,” on January 8, 1861, a guard at Fort Barrancas in Pensacola, Florida, fired a shot at a group of men intending to seize the fort. This could be considered the first shot of the war, three months before the attack on Fort Sumter.
An argument can be made though that it doesn’t really count as the first shot of the war. The action itself did not initiate more warfare. The shot may have been fired simply as a warning rather than with deadly intent. For those who don’t consider the shot at Fort Barrancas eligible for consideration as the first shot, an action the next day might have more credence.
Maj. Robert Anderson had removed his command from Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, to occupy the unfinished Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. The act itself was considered by some as an act of war. He commanded a small garrison that was both literally and figuratively on an island. They were cut off from help in terms of both men and supplies. Eventually a time would come when Anderson would have to be resupplied, and probably reinforced, or he would have to abandon the fort. It was determined in Washington that he would receive both.
On January 5 the merchant ship Star of the West left New York harbor loaded with two hundred soldiers and supplies. Not wanting to provoke the South, the administration decided to send a civilian ship rather than a warship. The same day a message was sent to Anderson telling him that if any ship coming to Fort Sumter was fired upon, Anderson could return fire. Anderson did not get the message in time. The following day, the 6th, Anderson sent word to Washington that at the present his command was all right and not in immediate need of either troops or supplies. He also noted that “it would be dangerous and difficult for a vessel from without to enter the harbor. . . .” It was too late. The ship had sailed.
Arriving late on the night of the 8th, the Star of the West remained until day began to break. Once they saw a light on Fort Sumter they knew where they were, as “the other coast light marking the approaches to the harbor had been extinguished, and the other buoy marking the channel across the bar was gone.” Then, as a correspondent in Charleston reported, “the whole city was aroused by the deep boom of cannon in the harbor.”
Manned by cadets from the Citadel, a battery on Morris Island fired a warning shot across the ship’s bow about a quarter past seven. George Haynsworth is credited with pulling the lanyard to fire the first shot. The ship’s captain, James McGowan, continued toward the fort. The cannons continued to fire at his ship. The first shots all missed the Star of the West. A newspaper reporter on board the ship recorded the events:
“Booh!” exclaims the captain; “you must give us bigger guns than that, boys, or you can not hurt us.”
On we go, without heeding the compliments of our Charleston friends. Another moment and bang! again goes the heavy gun. The ball now strikes our ship in the fore chains, about two feet above the water. A seaman was holding the lead to take the soundings, and the ball struck directly under his feet. It is not surprising that, under the circumstances, Jack was strongly inclined to take to his heels, and he begins to scramble up with might and main, when the captain assures him that there is no danger, one ball having struck so near him; on the principle, I suppose, that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Jack, reassured, patiently takes his place and drops the lead again.
The ball, fortunately, was too far spent to go through the side of our vessel, although it left an honorable scar.
The firing continued, mostly missing the ship. As Captain McGowan proceeded, they came within range of Fort Moultrie, whose cannons also opened fire on the ship. The guns in Fort Sumter stood silent. Deciding he would not be able to withstand a bombardment from both Morris Island and Fort Moultrie while not being defended by Fort Sumter, McGowan turned the Star of the West and headed back out to sea. On Morris Island a witness believed that the ship had been “struck certainly three times, and perhaps five. The last shot which took effect was fired after she had turned to go out.” The reinforcement and resupply of Fort Sumter had failed.
Rather than criticize Anderson for not firing in the defense of the Star of the West, Secretary of War Joseph Holt wrote Anderson that, due to the circumstances, “your forbearance to return the fire is fully approved by the President.”
As it had been two weeks previous when he decided to abandon Fort Moultrie and move his command to Fort Sumter, Robert Anderson was faced with great responsibility. Had he returned fire as the Star of the West approached, he might have brought on civil war. Without direct orders to that effect from his superiors, Anderson decided to use caution, with the hopes that the nation’s troubles might still be settled without bloodshed.
Unlike the shot fired at Fort Barrancas the day before, the shots fired at the Star of the West could definitely be said to be fired with deadly intent. Though the war wouldn’t “officially” start for another three months, the shot from Morris Island could be considered the first shot of the Civil War.
In Charleston, some thought it was. The January 10 edition of The Charleston Mercury stated that “yesterday morning was the opening of the hall of the Revolution.” South Carolina, the newspaper reported, “has not hesitated to strike the first blow. . . .”