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Today In Charleston History: January 9

 1803 – Births.

Christopher Memminger

Christopher Gustavus Memminger was born in Vaihingen an der Enz, Germany. His father, Gottfried Memminger, a military officer, died in combat a month after his son’s birth. Eberhardina Kohler Memminger, and her son Christopher immigrated to Charleston. He was placed in the Charleston Orphan House at age five after his mother died of yellow fever. It was noted by the Orphan officials that Christopher showed “a great native genius, particularly in mathematics.”

 At age ten, Memminger was taken in by Thomas Bennett, Jr.and two years later, he enrolled in South Carolina College (University of South Carolina) and graduated second in his class at age sixteen. He became a prominent lawyer and politician. He served as the first Treasurer of the Confederacy.

1861 – Secession.

The Union merchant ship, Star of the West, was fired upon as it tried to deliver supplies to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The Star, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, was a 1,172 ton, two-deck steamship, a length of 228.3 feet (69.6 m) and a beam of 32.7 feet (10.0 m) and with wooden hullside paddle wheels and two masts.

star of the west

Star of the West

When South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, it 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 so Buchanan decided, in order to keep tensions from erupting even more, to dispatch an unarmed civilian ship, Star of the West, instead of a military transport.

The Star left New York on January 5, 1861. After the ship was en route, Secretary of War Joseph Holt received a dispatch from Anderson saying supplies were not needed immediately. Holt realized that the ship may be in danger and 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.

The Charleston Mercury newspaper wrote on January 6:

Despatches from New York say that the steamer Star of the West of the Panama line, coaled up yesterday with unusual celerity. The rumor is that she is to carry troops to Charleston, but this is ridiculed at the Steamship Company’s Office.

On January 8 the Mercury reported, in all capital letters:


The people of Charleston were feverish with excitement. They spent the afternoon sitting on the roofs of mansions with spyglasses staring out at sea.

A few minutes past six in the morning of January 9, Star of the West captain John McGowan steered the ship into the channel near the fort, passing Morris Island.  A week before, South Carolina governor Francis Pickens had ordered a hastily-built battery on the island, on the site of an abandoned hospital. Manned by about 200 infantrymen and about fifty Citadel cadets, trained in artillery usage. During that frantic week, the cadets had managed to build a battery of 24-pounders, facing east, hidden behind sand dunes and sand bags.

It was just after Reveille when the sentries on Morris Island spied the Star of the West . Major Peter F. Stevens gave the order, “Commence firing.” Two cannon shots roared from a South Carolina battery on Morris Island. the shots skipped in front of the Star and splashed harmlessly into the water. They came from cadet gunner George E. Haynsworth.  In all, seventeen shots were fired and the Star suffered a minor hit. Not being a military vessel and never before been engaged in battle, Capt. John McGowan decided to turn around and exit the harbor. From the beginning to end the entire episode had lasted forty-five minutes.

Firing on the Star of the West - Harper's Weekly.

Firing on the Star of the West – Harper’s Weekly.

 The next day the Charleston Mercury crowed: 

Yesterday will be remembered in history. The expulsion of the Star of the West from Charleston Harbor yesterday morning was the opening ball of the Revolution. We are proud that our harbor has been so honored. The State of South Carolina, so long and so bitterly reviled and scoffed at has thrown back her enemies.

Lt. Smith on the Star of the West humorously wrote:

The people of Charleston pride themselves on their hospitality, but it exceeded my expectations. They gave us several balls before we landed.

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