Loose Lips (Almost) Sink Ships   Leave a comment

Disunion Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

Charleston Harbor, Jan. 9, 1861

Capt. Abner Doubleday rose early and went up to the parapet of Fort Sumter, scanning the surrounding waters with his telescope. He had seen something flashing out there the night before: a pilot boat signaling that a vessel was approaching Charleston Harbor in the darkness.

Since their move into the fortress two weeks before, Doubleday and his comrades in the small Union garrison had been looking out over that harbor in despair, as the besieging Carolinians were joined by volunteer units from across the Deep South. “If we ascended to the parapet,” he later recalled, “we saw nothing but uncouth State flags, representing palmettos, pelicans and other strange devices. No echo seemed to come back from the loyal North to encourage us. Our glasses in vain swept the horizon; the one flag we longed to see was not there.”

The <i>Star of the West</i> enters Charleston Harbor, from <i>Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper</i>.” /><span class=Library of CongressHeadline in the New York Herald, Jan. 8, 1861.

But the plan had sprung a leak. Actually, multiple leaks. New York longshoremen and tugboat pilots were not noted for their discretion, and by the evening of the Star’s departure, word had reached the city’s newspaper editors – for whom a scoop easily trumped any mere issues of national security. “SECRET MOVEMENTS OF UNITED STATES TROOPS,” blared a headline in the Herald, above a story describing the expedition down to its last detail. Similar reports appeared in papers from Massachusetts to Georgia (including The New York Times).

By that point, however, the secessionist authorities in South Carolina were already fully informed. Buchanan’s secretary of the interior, Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, had learned of the plan, resigned his post and promptly telegraphed Charleston.

The mission’s intended beneficiaries – the loyal troops at Fort Sumter and their commander, Maj. Robert Anderson – were among the last to learn of it. Washington had no secure telegraph line to the garrison, and so the War Department had mailed Anderson a letter. It traveled more slowly than the Star did. When Sumter’s officers saw a newspaper report of the expedition on Jan. 8, they “could not credit the rumor,” Doubleday wrote. “To publish all the details of an expedition of this kind, which ought to be kept a profound secret, was virtually telling South Carolina to prepare her guns to sink the vessel.”

Now the captain watched in astonishment as that very ship – the supposed journalistic figment – puffed laboriously up the channel. Then the crash of a rebel cannon split the morning air.

Doubleday, without waiting to see where the shot hit, rushed headlong downstairs to alert Anderson, who was still in bed. The major ordered his men to their battle stations. They hurried to load and prime Sumter’s cannons.

The Star was still under fire. Solid shot hurtled toward her from a battery on Morris Island manned by teenage cadets from the Citadel, the local military academy. Luckily, the youths were far from expert artillerists, and their cannonballs mostly splashed harmlessly into the water; one or two struck the steamer but did little damage. The American flag on her foremast dipped and rose again, as if the captain were trying to signal the fort. Clearly he expected Sumter’s guns to open upon the rebels and protect him.

Almost at that moment, more cannon fire boomed out, from a different direction: Fort Moultrie, across the channel. The Carolinians were attacking from two directions now.

Related
Civil War Timeline

Fort Sumter

An unfolding history of the Civil War with photos and articles from the Times archive and ongoing commentary from Disunion contributors.

And still Sumter’s gunners stood watching, immobile, awaiting orders; clutching the lanyards that they might pull at any moment to set their own cannons roaring in reply. The entire scene seemed surreal, almost unbelievable: a citadel that had very recently been their own fortress was now firing upon the American flag. One of the lieutenants – a Union officer who bore the improbable and unfortunate name Jefferson C. Davis – begged Major Anderson to unleash his guns on Moultrie.

Anderson hesitated and seemed about to give the order. But another lieutenant, the Virginian Richard K. Meade, began remonstrating with Anderson, reminding him that the first shot from Sumter would mean civil war. Just then, across the channel, the Star began to swing her bow around into a turn.

“Hold on; do not fire,” Anderson said. “I will wait.”

Across the harbor, from the Charleston waterfront, an anxious Carolinian was watching the drama unfold. He was William Henry Trescot, who until recently had been assistant secretary of state in the Buchanan administration, but had just returned home to cast his lot with the rebellion. Now he stood, shuddering, as he thought of Anderson’s garrison and the fate that would befall them if a full-scale artillery battle began. His summer house was a few hundred yards from their former quarters at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island; the Union soldiers had been his friends – occasionally his dinner guests – in peacetime.

“Almost every summer day after breakfast, I used to light my cigar, walk over to Fort Mo
ultrie, sit down in the piazza, and talk away the long morning,” Trescot wrote soon afterward. “It is mortifying to send a cannonball into bowels which have digested your hospitality gratefully and thoroughly. To kill them is almost as bad as to be killed ourselves.”

But the Star of the West was heading out again toward the open sea. The guns around the harbor fell silent, giving way once more to the cries of seagulls and the muted sigh of the waves. Trescot would have no reason to be mortified. Not yet.

Join Disunion on Facebook »

Sources: Abner Doubleday, “Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-’61”; Samuel Wylie Crawford, “The History of the Fall of Fort Sumpter”; New-York Tribune, Jan. 9, 10, and 14, 1861; New York Herald, Jan. 8, 1861; Macon Daily Telegraph, Jan. 7, 1861; Boston Evening Transcript, Jan. 8, 1861; New York Times, Jan. 7 and 10, 1861; Maury Klein, “Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War”; William W. Freehling, “The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant.”

Adam Goodheart

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Posted January 9, 2011 by dmacc502 in History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: