Take Note; the Guns of January

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, January 9, 2018. So the Oprah-for-president craze begins. Will this prove a temporary blip, soon forgotten? Or a powerful tsunami that (again) turns U.S. politics on its head?

Star of the West

History teaches us that we don’t always immediately recognize the turning of the tide when it first happens. Today’s date, for example is when the actual first shots were fired by secessionists in 1861. That event took place, of course, in South Carolina, after a non-military ship, the Star of the West, glided into Charleston Harbor to re-supply the garrison at Fort Sumter. Residents of Charleston had other ideas, however.

The Star of the West was a civilian steamship with two masts and a paddle wheel — and no guns — when it sailed south from New York on January 5, 1861. Captained by John McGowan, the ship was steaming into waters that had been roiled by the first state to secede from the Union.

As one of their initial acts of rebellion, South Carolina authorities had demanded the evacuation of the stone fortress in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Neither lame-duck President James Buchanan nor incoming President Abraham Lincoln was inclined to capitulate to this ultimatum. In response, the rebels made it clear that they would starve the garrison out. Hoping to avoid a shooting war, Secretary of War Joseph Holt dispatched the Star of the West. But as Capt. McGowan piloted his ship to within half a mile of Fort Sumter at dawn on this date in 1861, a cannonball flew over his bow. Two other artillery shells nearly hit the pilot house and smokestack. A fourth struck the ship. No one was killed, but McGowan and his men realized that they had been sent into a war zone.

McGowan ran up his flag, the flag of the United States. But the men on the shore already knew whom they were firing at. The Star of the West was unarmed, so all the ship’s crew could do was scan the shoreline and nearby Morris Island for further incoming fire. As they peered through the early morning haze, the crew saw a large standard waving beyond the island’s dunes. It was a flag of ominous red color with a white palmetto. The state of South Carolina had, in effect, declared war on the United States.

The Star of the West made it safely back out to sea, and eventually to New York Harbor. The Confederates opened fired on Fort Sumter itself in April, leading to four years of civil war. Sometimes it seems that little has changed in the ensuing 157 years. On the other hand, one of South Carolina’s senators today is African-American and its recent governor, a woman of Sikh descent, is ambassador to the United Nations.

What to make of this? Well, eight years before the Star of the West was driven back north, a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker offered some thoughts that might apply. “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways,” wrote the Massachusetts-born abolitionist. “But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

During the civil rights moment, Martin Luther King shortened this sentiment, popularized it, and is widely given credit for it today.

But the arc of Theodore Parker’s own family illustrates the very point. His paternal grandfather was John Parker, captain of the local militia at Lexington during the fateful engagement with the British on April 19, 1775. “Stand your ground,” he reportedly told his fellow Americans. “Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

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