The 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 before the American Civil War. The ship was a substitute for the USS Brooklyn, an armed screw sloop which continued to escort the Star of the West on its journey.
The Star of the West was a 1172 ton steamship built by Jeremiah Simonson, of New York for Cornelius Vanderbilt, and launched June 17, 1852. Its length was 228.3ft and its beam 32.7ft, 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, before the Confederacy was formed, the 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 the Star of the West from resupplying Major Robert Anderson's garrison at Fort Sumter. The Star of the West was given a warning shot across the bow and turned about to leave the harbor mouth. She was then fired on from Fort Moultrie and hit twice. The mission was abandoned and the 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. The 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 the CSS St. Philip. The old name persisted, however, and the Star of the West served as a naval station and hospital ship until Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans.
Still under Confederate control, the 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 the 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 the 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.
- George Edward "Tuck" Haynesworth
- William Stewart Simkins
- "Star of the West". http://blueandgraytrail.com/event/Star_of_the_West. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
- "Morris Island Coalition". http://www.civilwar.org/preservation/morrisisland/History/brief%20history.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-22.
- Updike, John (1996). Memories of the Ford Administration. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-91211-6.
- Account by Captain M'Gowan of the shots fired on the Star of the West in Harper's Weekly. Note the date given as 10 January.