Star of the West fired upon in Charleston Harbor

January 9, 1861 – The unarmed vessel, Star of the West, arrives to reinforce the Federal garrison of soldiers at Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbor and is fired upon by southerners. The reinforcements are never delivered.

The First Shot of the Civil War

The January 26, 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly featured the following illustration, showing the First Shot of the Civil War. The first shot was fired on January 10, 1861. It was fired by the South Carolinians on Morris Island. They fired on the Union Ship “Star of the West” as it attempted to reinforce Major Anderson at Fort Sumter.

Harper’s Weekly, January 26, 1861


WE publish on page 52 a fine illustration of the firing on the Star of the West from the Morris Island Battery, Harbor of Charleston, on 10th January, 1861. The event was mentioned in our last Number ; and it is only necessary to say here that she was on her way to Fort Sumter with men and supplies for the reinforcement of Major Anderson. The captain of the Star of the West, by name M’Gowan, gives the following account of the event:

“When we arrived about two miles from Fort Moultrie —fort Sumter being about the same distance—a masked battery on Morris Island, where there was a red Palmetto flag flying, opened fire upon us—distance, about five-eighths of a mile. We had the American flag flying at our flag-staff at the time, and, soon after the first shot, hoisted a large American ensign at the fore. We continued on under the fire of the battery for over ten minutes, several of the shots going clean over us. One passed just clear of the pilot-house. Another passed between the smoke-stack and walking-beams of the engine. Another struck the ship just abaft the fore-rigging, and stove in the planking; and another came within an ace of carrying away the rudder. At the same time there was a movement of two steamers from near Fort Moultrie—one of them towing a schooner (I presume an armed schooner) —with the intention of cutting us off. Our position now became rather critical, as we had to approach Fort Moultrie to within three-fourths of a mile before we could keep away for Fort Sumter. A steamer approaching us with an armed schooner in tow, and the battery on the Island firing at us all the time, and having no cannon to defend ourselves from the attack of the vessels, we concluded that, to avoid certain capture or destruction, we would endeavor to get to sea. Consequently, we wore round and steamed down the channel, the battery firing upon us until their shot fell short.”

A reporter of the Evening Post, who was on board, thus describes the scene:

” On we go; the soldiers are below with loaded muskets, and the officers are ready to give the word if there is anything to do. Now it is broad daylight, and we are making directly into the guns of Fort Moultrie, whose black walls are distinctly visible. The little steamer at our right is burning a signal light aft, and is making all possible head-way up the harbor. Now we discover a red Palmetto flag at our left on Morris Island, a little village called Cummings Point, and apparently but little more than a mile from Fort Sumter.

” ‘Is it possible that those fellows have got a battery off here?’ asks one.

” No,’ answers another, ‘ there is no battery there.’

“But there is. It is now a quarter past seven, and we are about two miles from Forts Sumter and Moultrie, which are equidistant from us, and, suddenly, whiz-z! comes a richochet shot from Morris Island. It plunges into the water and skips along, but falls short of our steamer. The line was forward of our bow, and was, of course, an invitation to stop. But we are not ready to accept the proffered hospitality, and the captain pays no attention to it, except to run up the stars and stripes at the mast-head—a garrison flag which was on board. A moment of anxious suspense, and bang! goes a heavy cannon from the same masked battery. The shot falls short of us a hundred yards or more, and bounds clean over our vessel aft, nearly on a line with the head of a sailor, but luckily a little above it.

” On we go, and—whizz ! again goes the smaller gun first fired, and another richochet shot skips along the water and falls short of us.

“‘ 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 battery continues to play upon us, and a huge ball comes clean over us, near the wheel-house. We are not yet within range of the guns of Fort Moultrie, and yonder is a cutter in tow of a steamboat, preparing to open fire upon us. A moment longer, and we shall be in range of these three batteries. The gunners on Morris Island are growing confident; if they get the right range they will send a shot through our side, scattering death and destruction. Moultrie, directly in front, will bring her heavy guns to bear, and will drive their deadly missiles into our bow, while the cutter will open on our right.

” Why does not Major Anderson open fire upon that battery and save us? We look in vain for help; the American flag flies from Fort Sumter, and the American flag at our bow and stern is fired upon, yet there is not the slightest recognition of our presence from the fort from which we look for protection. The unexpected battery on Morris Island has cut off all hope of escape by running the vessel aground near Sumter and taking to the boats. Is it possible that Fort Sumter has been taken by the South Carolinians? If it has not, why does not Major Anderson show that he will protect us, or at least recognize us in some way ? To go within range of the guns of Fort Moultrie is to expose vessel, men, and stores to almost instant destruction, or to capture by the enemy.

“‘ Helm out of port!’ shouts the Captain, and the Star of the West is turned about without any great loss of time, as you may well imagine. We turn without accident, and steam away, with the stars and stripes still floating, and the battery still playing upon us by way of a parting salute.”

A person who was on Morris Island at the time of the firing thus describes the excitement:

“The shots were fired by the Citadel Cadets, under command of Major Stephens, who has thus had the honor, which he so much coveted, of opening the impending conflict. Major Stephens is at the head of the State Military Academy, which occupies the Charleston Citadel. He is apparently about thirty-five years of age, with rather thin black hair, black and heavy beard, and large black eyes. He is about the medium size, of lithe form, with quick, nervous motions. His guns were directed at the steamer with scientific accuracy, and even the shot which failed to strike the ship fell very near her. Her flag was pulled down, and she immediately retreated. She was struck certainly three times, and perhaps five. The last shot which took effect was fired after she had turned to go out. The steamer was seen to shoot forward with a jerk the instant this shot struck her. Two balls were seen to strike her hull; one just forward of her wheel-house, the other upon the larboard quarter.”


  1. Interesting. I saw an article in the Oskaloosa Independence newspaper of September 20th, 1860 (Oskaloosa is located north of Lawrence, Kansas or west of Kansas City about 50 miles) which listed the steamboats leaving or arriving in Manahattan, Kansas along with several more steamboats. Very interesting indeed!!

  2. The text of the article perpetuates a 150-year-old mistake in the January 26, 1861, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The Star of the West — commanded by Captain John McGowan of Elizabeth, New Jersey — was fired upon in Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1861, not on January 10.

  3. I read with interest the article on “The Firing on the ‘Star of the West.'” It has been passed down in my family that my great-grandmother’s brother, Ezekiel Andrew Perry was at the firing of the first gun at Fort Sumter. We have been unable to verify this. The Citadel does not have a record of his having been a cadet during that period of time, however they say that their records are not complete. Do you have any suggestions of any other records that are available that would list the names of the cadets who were present at the firing on the Star of the West.
    Thanks, Susan McElreath

    1. Susan, Ezekiel Andrew Perry married two sisters in my family. Did he attend school at The Citadel?

      Would like to correspond with you, if possible.
      Thank you, Fran

  4. Was not the Star of the West the vessel captured by Confederates at Galveston and later SUNK in the Tallahatchie River at Greenwood, MS, to prevent Grant’s approach to Vicksburg?

  5. My great uncle, Cadet Captain John Marshall, was appointed Corporal as a Third Classman at the Citadel, in 1858-59 and ranked first in his class that year. In his final year at the Citadel on the morning of January 1861, he gave the command to fire the first secessionist shot of the war. The order was given to Cadet Geo. E Haynesworth to pull the lanyard. See A.G.D. Wiles,”The Boys Behind the Gun” (circa 1979, pamphlet)

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