By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, a projectile from a cannon that may or may not have been fired by Edmund Ruffin flew toward Fort Sumter and became the first shot of the Civil War. The Fort Sumter garrison, which consisted of fewer than 100 men, was commanded by Major Robert Anderson and included among its officers Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor of baseball. After the garrison endured a bombardment of over 30 hours, Anderson agreed to surrender the fort. On April 14 the Fort Sumter garrison evacuated the fort, but not until after the troops fired a salute. During this salute, a cannon misfired and killed Daniel Hough, which gave him the unfortunate distinction of being the first person to die in the Civil War.
For the most part, this very brief account of the battle of Fort Sumter is factual. There is some dispute about whether or not Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot of the Civil War, but there is no dispute that the first shot occurred on April 12, 1861, and there is no dispute that the first person to die in the Civil War was Daniel Hough. Or is there? There are some who claim that the first shot of the Civil War was fired more than three months before shots were fired on Fort Sumter, that this first shot was fired by George Edward Haynsworth, and that the first person to die in the war was Robert L. Holmes.
The alternative account regarding the first shot and the first death of the Civil War begins in late December of 1860 when plans were being made by the U.S. to reinforce and resupply the Fort Sumter garrison. The original plan was for the warship USS Brooklyn to sail to Charleston with troops and supplies. (On a side note, at the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, it was the Brooklyn that slowed down and caused David Farragut to utter his famous “Damn the torpedoes” quote.) President James Buchanan and his advisors decided that sending a military ship would be provocative, and the War Department instead chartered the side-wheel merchant steamer Star of the West to transport about 200 troops and also small arms, ammunition, and provisions. It was thought that a merchant ship would arouse less suspicion, and the troops on board were to remain below deck once the vessel entered Charleston harbor. Moreover, the Star of the West regularly transported passengers and mail from New York City to points south, including New Orleans and Havana, and it was thought that this would further aid in concealing the true intent of the voyage.
On January 5, 1861, the Star of the West left New York City on its presumed covert mission. However, word of the mission had been conveyed to South Carolina officials by members of Congress who were from southern states, such as fire-eater Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas. By the time the Star of the West reached Charleston on January 9, South Carolina forces were on alert. These forces included cadets from The Citadel military college, who manned guns on Morris Island and in Fort Moultrie. Early on the morning of January 9, Citadel cadet William Simkins, who was on duty as a sentinel on Morris Island, saw the Star of the West enter Charleston harbor. He alerted his comrades, who quickly went to their guns. As the Federal vessel continued to steam toward Fort Sumter, the commander of the cadets, Citadel superintendent Major P.F. Stevens, ordered a shot to be fired across the bow of the oncoming ship. This shot was fired by Citadel cadet George Edward Haynsworth.
The Star of the West continued toward Fort Sumter. More shots were fired from Morris Island, and still more from Fort Moultrie. These shots flew close by the Star of the West, and a few even struck the ship. Although the damage to the merchant ship was slight, she was unarmed and, hence, unable to defend herself. When Captain John McGowan of the Star of the West saw ships approaching from Charleston, he gave the order for his ship to reverse course, and the vessel steamed out of Charleston harbor as the batteries on shore continued to fire until the ship moved out of range. The cannon fire that drove off the Star of the West began with the shot fired by George Haynsworth, which was the first hostile shot fired between a seceded state and the United States, and which preceded the shots on Fort Sumter by more than three months. Haynsworth went on to graduate from The Citadel and serve throughout the entire Civil War. After the war he became a lawyer and then a magistrate. While Haynsworth was serving as a magistrate, two feuding groups of men were brought before him by a sheriff who neglected to disarm the men. At one point these men began shooting at each other in Haynsworth’s office, and Haynsworth was mortally wounded, which brought to a premature end the life of the man who fired the first hostile shot in the armed conflict between secessionists and Unionists.
The action in Charleston harbor was not to be the last that the Star of the West experienced. For the next few months she was chartered by the War Department as a troop transport. On April 18, 1861, the Star of the West was anchored off the coast of Texas to evacuate Federal troops from that state, but the ship was captured by Texas troops commanded by Earl Van Dorn. The vessel was taken to New Orleans for use as a hospital ship, and after David Farragut captured New Orleans, the Star of the West was moved to Vicksburg. When Union ironclads attempted to come at Vicksburg from the rear via the Tallahatchie River, the Star of the West was sunk broadside in the river to block transit. (As an aside, the Tallahatchie is the river that is mentioned in the song “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry.) After the war, the owners of the Star of the West were paid $175,000 by the U.S. government for their loss. Although the ship was sunk, the Star of the West still exists today. Each year The Citadel presents an award to the winner of its competition for best drilled cadet, and that award is named the Star of the West Medal. The medal was made by Confederate veteran Benjamin Teague and contains a piece of wood from the ship.
There were no casualties as a result of the firing on the Star of the West on January 9, 1861, but there was a casualty that resulted from the Star of the West’s voyage to Charleston. Prior to the ship’s arrival, tensions were very high among the troops who were awaiting the ship that they had been told was on the way to resupply Fort Sumter. On the night of January 7, 1861, two days before the arrival of the Star of the West, a nervous sentinel in Castle Pinckney, a military fortification in Charleston harbor, heard an unidentified man approaching. He raised his musket and called out to the man, but the musket fired accidentally, according to one account because the sentinel dropped the musket. The approaching man was shot in the chest and died in less than half an hour. He was identified as Robert L. Holmes of the Carolina Light Infantry. Holmes had five brothers, and four of them followed him in death during the Civil War. No one disputes that these four brothers died in the Civil War, and there are some who say that the same is true for Robert Holmes, whose death from a shooting accident preceded Daniel Hough’s death from a shooting accident by more than three months.
Sometimes demarcations in history that seem beyond dispute are more murky than they appear. Depending on where these historical demarcations are drawn, something is or is not included in a particular historical event. Maybe the first shot of the Civil War occurred on April 12, 1861, or maybe it happened on January 9, 1861. Maybe this first shot was fired by Edmund Ruffin, or maybe George Haynsworth fired the first shot of the war. Maybe the first person to die in the Civil War was Daniel Hough, or maybe it was Robert Holmes. Where demarcations are drawn in history does not change the historical facts. What changes is how the facts are categorized.