Star of the West
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Star of the West approaching Fort Sumter. Illustration fromFrank Leslie’s Weekly.
|Owner:||Cornelius Vanderbilt (1852–1853)
Charles Morgan (1853–1856)
United States Mail Steamship Company(1856–)
|Operator:||United States Department of War(1861–)|
|Launched:||17 June 1852|
|Length:||228.3 ft (69.6 m)|
|Beam:||32.7 ft (10.0 m)|
Star of the West was a civilian steamship hired by the United States government to transport military supplies and reinforcements to the garrison of Fort Sumter, but was fired on by cadets from The Citadel. The ship was a substitute for USS Brooklyn,[clarification needed] an armed screw sloop that continued to escort Star of the West on its journey.
Star of the West was a 1,172 ton steamship built by Jeremiah Simonson, of New York for Cornelius Vanderbilt, and launched June 17, 1852. Its length was 228.3 feet (69.6 m) and its beam 32.7 feet (10.0 m), with wooden hullside paddle wheels and two masts. She started service between New York and San Juan de Nicaragua on October 20, 1852 and continued this service for Charles Morgan from July 1853 to March 1856. In June 1857, she started the New York to Aspinwall service for the United States Mail Steamship Company until September 1859 when it went onto the New York, Havana, New Orleans service. In January 1861, she was chartered to the War Department.
On January 9, 1861, weeks after South Carolina had seceded (but before other states had done so to form the Confederacy) Star of the West was fired upon by cadets from The Citadel stationed at the Morris Island battery as the ship entered Charleston Harbor. 
This prevented Star of the West from resupplying Major Robert Anderson‘s garrison at Fort Sumter. Star of the West was given a warning shot across the bow and turned about to leave the harbor mouth. She was hit three times by what were effectively the first shots of the American Civil War. Although Star of the West did not suffer any major damage, her captain, John McGowan, considered it too dangerous to continue and turned about to leave the harbor. The mission was abandoned and Star of the West headed for her home port of New York Harbor.
The ship was then hired out of New York as a troop transport for $1,000 a day under its master, Elisha Howes. Star of the West sailed for Texas to pick up seven companies of United States troops assembled at Indianola. On April 18, 1861, while anchored off Pass Caballo bar leading into Matagorda Bay, the ship was captured by Colonel Earl Van Dorn and members of two Galveston militia units, the Wigfall Guards and the Island City Rifles. Two days later the ship was taken to New Orleans where Louisiana’s Governor Moore changed its name to CSS St. Philip. The old name persisted, however, and Star of the West served as a naval station and hospital ship until Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans.
Still under Confederate control, Star of the West escaped recapture by transporting millions in gold, silver, and paper currency to Vicksburg and continued to Yazoo City, Mississippi. When federal Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith tried to lead two ironclads and five smaller vessels through the Yazoo Pass into the Tallahatchie River to attack Vicksburg from the rear, Confederate defenders hurriedly constructed Fort Pemberton, and Major General William W. Loring had Star of the West sunk broadside in the Tallahatchie near Greenwood to block the passage of the Union flotilla. In a skirmish on April 12, 1863, the Union forces suffered heavy casualties and were forced to withdraw.
Following the war, the owners of Star of the West collected $175,000 in damages from the United States government for their loss.
The incident looms large in a novel by John Updike, Memories of the Ford Administration (1992). Although Updike’s protagonist is trying (in the early 1990s) to write about the mid-1970s, he spent those years seeking to write a book about President Buchanan, and his mind keeps reverting to the 19th century and, among other incidents, the mission of this sloop to Sumter.
The Star of the West Medal is awarded annually to the “best drilled cadet” at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. In June 1893, The Citadel Superintendent, Colonel Asbury Coward, took the corps to Aiken, South Carolina for their annual encampment and graduation exercises. The excellent military work of the cadets suggested to Dr. Benjamin H. Teague, a Confederate Veteran, and a collector of Confederate relics, to present to the Citadel a medal for the winner of the Best Drilled Cadet competition. Among his many curios, Dr. Teague had a piece of oak from the Steam ShipStar of the West. He sawed a small piece of this wood into the shape of a star and had it mounted on a gold medal. The recipient would wear the medal for one year and then pass it to the next recipient. The class of 1910 holds the record for the most recipients. Five cadets have won the award twice and one has won the award three times. The winner’s names are inscribed on the “Star of the West” monument. Unfortunately the original medal with the wood has been lost to history.
- Charleston, South Carolina in the American Civil War
- George Edward “Tuck” Haynesworth
- William Stewart Simkins
- Yazoo Pass Expedition
- Updike, John (1996). Memories of the Ford Administration. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-91211-6.
- “Steamships on the Panama Route – Both Atlantic and Pacific”. The Ships List. Retrieved 2013-09-20.
- “Shots at the Star of the West”. Son of the South. Note the date given as 10 January.