On this day in 1861, the Star of the West, a Union merchant vessel, leaves New York with supplies and 250 troops to relieve the beleaguered Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina.
The vessel's departure came during the sensitive days following the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860. The primary cause for secession was the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. presidency the month before, but it was President James Buchanan, a Democrat, who had to deal with the first crisis after South Carolina's secession. Inside of Fort Sumter were Major Robert Anderson and 80 Federal soldiers surrounded by hostile South Carolinians, who were demanding evacuation by the Yankees. Anderson informed officials in Washington, D.C., that he needed supplies within a few weeks. Buchanan was reluctant to make any provocative moves but felt that some attempt to save Sumter should be made.
The Star of the West was chosen because a civilian vessel was less likely to agitate South Carolinians. The ship left New York on January 5, but it did not complete its mission. Arriving on January 9, the Star of the West encountered an alert South Carolina militia. Word of the mission had leaked to everyone, it seemed, except Anderson. He had received no notification of the mission and was surprised when cannon from the shore opened fire on the approaching ship. One shot hit the Star of the West, and the ship turned around before taking any more damage. Anderson withheld his fire on the hostile shore batteries, and the standoff in Charleston Harbor continued until April, when the South Carolinians opened the massive bombardment that started the Civil War.