The 2014 Sons of Confederate Veterans National Reunion was held in North Charleston, South Carolina, July 17-19. Wednesday night, prior to the start of the Reunion, I was invited to a drop-in to celebrate the return of the Star of the West ship’s bell to Charleston. This was quite an honor and the highlight of the week for me. I also had the privilege of ringing the bell.
The bell was displayed at the Reunion, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It will be on exhibit at the Citadel for six months. If you are in Charleston and have time, I suggest a visit to see it.
A bit of the history of the Star of the West and its bell:
The night of December 26, 1860, under the cover of darkness, Union Major Robert Anderson secretly moved his garrison from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the unfinished Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. This was in violation of the armistice between the State of South Carolina and the Federal Government – an act of war. January 5, 1861, President Buchanan sent the Star of the West to Charleston along with First Lieutenant Charles R. Woods in command of 200 men and munitions for several months. This was also in violation of the armistice and another act of war. After the ship was en route, Secretary of War Joseph Holt received a dispatch from Anderson saying that the garrison was safe and supplies were not needed immediately. The warship, Brooklyn, was sent to intercept the Star of the West, but it arrived at Charleston first.
Early morning, January 9, the Star of the West entered the main shipping channel. As it passed Cumming’s Point on Morris Island, gunner George E. Haynsworth, a cadet at the Citadel fired warning shots across its bow. The ship sped up, and the cadets fired two more shots scoring a minor hit. The guns of Fort Moultrie, now in Confederate control, began firing as the ship neared the harbor entrance. The Star of the West turned out to sea and joined the warship Brooklyn lying outside the harbor. The two ships returned to New York.
The Star was then hired out as a troop transport and sailed to Texas to pick up seven companies of United States troops. On April 18, 1861, while anchored off Pass Caballo bar near Matagorda Bay, Texas, the ship was captured by Colonel Earl Van Dorn and 85 members of two Galveston militia units, the Wigfall Guards and the Island City Rifles. The ship was taken to New Orleans where Louisiana Governor changed its name to CSS Saint Philip; however the Star of the West name persisted. The ship was briefly armed and served first as a naval station and then a hospital ship. Once it was evident that Admiral David Farragot was going to capture New Orleans, the Star carried millions in gold, silver and paper currency along with evacuated Confederate troops to Vicksburg and was then sent to Yazoo City, Mississippi.
When two federal gunboats and five smaller vessels tried to enter the Tallahatchie River through Yazoo Pass to attack Vicksburg from the rear, Major General William Loring had the Star stripped of its engine and easily removable parts and scuttled at the junction of the Yazoo and Tallahatchie rivers to block the Union ships. On April 12, 1863, the Union forces suffered heavy casualties in a skirmish and were forced to withdraw.
For several years during low water periods, the wreck was visible. This allowed it to be further stripped by souvenir hunters. The bell was found during an unusually low water level in 1889 and removed by Bud Brown, the son of an ex-slave.
Frank A. Murdock later donated the bell to Beauvoir in memory of his grandfather (one of Mississippi’s first settlers) and his father, Dr. Alfred Murdock. Alfred Murdock was a large landowner whose plantation was located on the west bank of the Yazoo River. The bell was stored beneath Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was forgotten.
In the case of the bell, the old saying that there is some good in all things is true. Hurricane Katrina washed the bell from under Beauvoir. Greg Stewart, Administrator of Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library brought the bell to Charleston for loan to the Citadel.