152nd anniversary of the Star of the West
Jan. 9, 2013, marks the 152nd anniversary of the firing on the Union supply ship the Star of the West.
On Jan. 9, 1861, Citadel cadets manning an artillery battery on Morris Island off the coast of South Carolina fired at the federal steamship the Star of the West to prevent it from reaching Fort Sumter. The ship was carrying supplies and 200 federal troops dispatched by President Buchanan to reinforce Union forces at the fort.
In 1861, there were between 40 and 50 cadets on Morris Island at the time of the firing on the Star of the West. The cadets were not an official part of the military at that time. The mostly first- and second-class cadets (seniors and juniors) were there because they had attended classes and instruction in artillery and infantry tactics as a part of their course of study. Other cadets were detailed to instruct the gathering militia units in infantry drill on the Citadel Green, now known as Marion Square. Others were at Fort Moultrie and others on Sullivan's Island instructing recruits in the employment of artillery. About 70 remained at The Citadel.
Many scholars consider the firing on the Star of the West to be the first hostile shots of the Civil War even though the attack on Fort Sumter did not begin until April 12, 1861. Because the Star of the West was not a United States Naval vessel, some scholars do not consider it to have been a military engagement.
During the Star of the West incident, the cadets flew a unique flag observed by eye witnesses on the federal steamer, and described in a dispatch by a Union officer at Fort Sumter as "a flag with a red field, and a white palmetto tree." That flag is now known as Big Red and is the official spirit flag of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets.
What is believed to be the flag that flew over the cadet battery on Morris Island in 1861 is on display at The Citadel's Holliday Alumni Center, 69 Hagood Ave. Discovered in storage in an Iowa museum, "Big Red" is on loan through 2014 from the State Historical Society of Iowa, where it had been in storage since 1919 when it was donated by Iowa Civil War veteran Pvt. John Baker. The flag is machine- and hand-stitched of wool and cotton. It measures a little more than 7 feet high and just over 10 feet wide.
In 2011, cadets from The Citadel Military Living History Society held a reenactment of the firing on Star of the West. Dressed in period uniforms and carrying reproductions of the cannons and muskets used in 1861, the cadets were part of Charleston's 150th anniversary of the Civil War.