On this day in 1861, a Union merchant ship, the Star of the West, is fired upon as it tries to deliver supplies to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. This incident was the first time shots were exchanged between North and South, although it not trigger the Civil War.
When South Carolinians seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, they demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter. President James Buchanan refused to comply with this demand but was also careful not to make any provocative move. Inside the fort, Major Robert Anderson and his 80 soldiers needed supplies. The Buchanan administration decided to dispatch a civilian ship, the Star of the West, instead of a military transport, in order to keep tensions from flaring.
The Star of the West left New York on January 5, 1861. After the ship was en route, Secretary of War Joseph Holt received a dispatch from Anderson saying that the garrison was safe and supplies were not needed immediately. Anderson added that the secessionists were building gun emplacements overlooking the main shipping channel into Charleston Harbor. Holt realized that the ship was in great danger and a war might erupt. He tried in vain to recall the Star of the West, and Anderson was not aware that the ship continued on its way.
On the morning of January 9, Star of the West captain John McGowan steered the ship into the channel near the fort. Two cannon shots roared from a South Carolina battery on Morris Island. They came from gunner George E. Haynsworth, a cadet at The Citadel in Charleston. The shots, while poor, represented the opening salvo of the war. More shots were fired, and the ship suffered a minor hit. Anderson watched from Fort Sumter but did not respond in support of the ship. If he had, the war might have started on that day.
The incident resulted in strong talk on both sides, but stopped short of war. The standoff at Fort Sumter continued until the Confederates attacked in April, triggering the Civil War.