Today is an exact date in U.S. military history, and one of the stranger ones. On this date 154 years ago, a few shots were fired that some historians contend were the opening shots of a major war. The shots were unique in that they were from only one side in what would become a war, and they were not fired by a soldier. Explanation follows.
In January 1861, tensions ran high in the southern states of the United States. Several of them had threatened to secede if Abraham Lincoln was elected president, which he was.
Charleston, South Carolina, was a hotbed of activity. In Charleston Harbor was Fort Sumter, garrisoned by 80 U.S. soldiers commanded by Maj. Robert Anderson. As tensions grew, he sent word that supplies were needed.
A ship was loaded with said supplies and set sail from New York to Charleston. It was the Star of the West, a 228-foot long ship built in 1852. It was a steamboat that since its christening had sailed a route between New York and ports in South America. In hindsight, it seems that everyone in Charleston, except Maj. Anderson, knew it was en route from New York to resupply the fort.
The Star of the West had only recently been been chartered by the U.S. Navy and was chosen for the mission because it was an unarmed steamship. Its presence in the area rather than an armed Navy ship was thought less likely to rile up the locals. That reasoning proved to be faulty.
It sailed on Jan. 5 and arrived near Charleston Jan. 9. But word had spread it was coming and cadets from the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, along with South Carolina militia troops, were called out to stop it from reaching the fort. Maj. Anderson was not aware of its presence until he heard cannons firing from a battery on Morris Island. The unarmed ship could not fire back and Anderson chose not to support it to hopefully keep tensions down. More faulty reasoning.
Cadets from the Citadel manned the cannons on Morris Island and Cadet George E. Haynsworth, who must have been an aspiring artillery officer, is credited with firing three shots at the Star of the West. What happened next depends on which source one uses. One said only one of the three shots hit the ship and another says all three hit it. But the ship must have been hit at least once, causing the captain, John McGraw, to consider the mission too dangerous to continue, and the ship withdrew from the channel.
So what happened next? Nothing happened next in Charleston other than "strong talk continued by both sides." No more shots were fired until April, when artillery batteries from the newly formed Confederate States of America fired on Fort Sumter, causing it to surrender.
The Star of the West was ferrying supplies and troops in the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of years until it was captured and became a ship in the Confederate navy. In April 1863, with Union forces closing in on Vicksburg, it was sunk at the mouth of the Tallahatchie River in an attempt to block U.S. ships from going to Vicksburg to support the impending attack. 
It worked and the river was blocked. But Vicksburg fell anyway. After the war, its owners petitioned the U.S. for reparations and received $175,000 for the sunken ship. No source said if it is still there today.
Maj. Anderson and his men, none of whom were killed in the bombardment, were taken prisoner. He was later exchanged for a Confederate officer, survived the war and was a major general by 1865. He was personally selected by Gen. U.S. Grant to be present at the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.
And as a final note, there was a small Army band at Fort Sumter and one member of it moved to the Midwest after the war. When he died, he was buried in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. I've got his name in a file somewhere and will find it someday. I've always thought it kind of neat that Fort Leavenworth has a bit of a tie to Fort Sumter.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.