Saturday, January 8, 2011

Defense of Charleston Harbor Remembered

Re-enactment marks firing on federal supply ship
By BRUCE SMITH - Associated Press


Citadel cadets are heading to a wind-swept island on Charleston Harbor to re-enact what to many were the first shots of the Civil War - the 1861 firing on a federal ship attempting to resupply Fort Sumter.

The steamship Star of the West carrying supplies and 200 federal troops to Sumter was fired on, hit and forced to turn back by cadets manning a battery on Morris Island.

The engagement being recalled Saturday is deeply ingrained in the history of the state military college, founded in 1842 and whose regimental colors carry eight Confederate battle ribbons.

The best drilled Citadel cadet still receives the Star of the West Medal each spring that incorporates wood from the vessel. The honor was established in 1893 and the wood came from a Confederate veteran.

A monument on campus lists all the winners of the award and the Star of the West scholarship is considered one of the most prestigious at the college.

About 20 student and faculty re-enactors from the school's Military Living History Society are marking the 150th anniversary of the Jan. 9, 1861 engagement.

Sumter was never resupplied and the Union garrison surrendered after a Confederate bombardment the following April opened the war.

The re-enactment is "to honor those who came before us," said William Sharbrough, the group's faculty advisor who called the engagement "one of the pivotal moments in the history of The Citadel."

James Roark, a history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said while memory of the war lingers in the South more than in other places, many Southerners, as well as those elsewhere, would not understand the re-enactment.

"What is being celebrated by The Star of the West? It's actually a little confusing. Is it the celebration of fending off federal power?" he asked.

"I teach at Emory. We're not going to celebrate the defeat of the Star of the West," he said. "It would be politically impossible at the University of South Carolina; the University of Georgia. It's only at these small, special places, military institutions particularly, that you are likely to see these kinds of things."

Bill Sansom, a Knoxville, Tenn., businessman, won the Star of the West medal as a Citadel freshman back in 1961 during the Civil War centennial. He later became regimental commander, the corps' highest cadet officer.

A half century ago, the commemoration was bigger, with the college's cadet corps marching to Charleston's Battery, he recalled.

Sansom said before he arrived on campus, he had never heard of the Star of the West, but as a freshman wound up winning the honor.

At the time of the 1861 engagement, South Carolina had declared its independence.

The cadets who fired on the steamer "were being good citizen-soldiers. They were defending their homeland," he said.

Read more: