Wednesday, April 17, 1861
“We are all upon the brink of revolution,” reckoned former Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campbell, as he spoke before the Virginia secession convention. He had recently been in Washington, acting as go-between for Secretary of State Seward and the Confederate commissioners. Now, like much of Virginia, he found himself a Confederate.
The Unionist majority that held for so long in the state was gone. It was true, they were on the brink of revolution. The convention put this revolution to a vote. It was passed 88 to 55, in favor of secession. Virginia was no longer in the Union. True, it would have to be approved by the people on May 23, but for all intents and purposes, the government of Virginia no longer saw itself as part of the government of the United States. This vote, however, would be kept behind the closed doors of the convention for the time being.
Henry Wise, former Governor of Virginia, promised that “blood will be flowing at Harper’s Ferry before night.” As planned the day before, Governor Letcher put out a call for militiamen. John Imboden’s battery, along with the Augusta militia and a cavalry commander named Turner Ashby, boarded trains bound for Harper’s Ferry.1
The Border States Refuse
The United States Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, continued to iron out the details of troops being sent to Washington. Maryland, being a border slave state, questioned whether the troops being requested would be held only in the defense of Washington and Maryland. Cameron assured the governor that that was correct.
While Indiana met their quota and even asked if they could send more, Tennessee’s Governor Isham Harris wrote that his state “would not furnish a single man for purpose of coercion, but 50,000, if necessary, for the defense of our rights and those of our Southern Brethren.”
Claiborne Jackson, Missouri’s governor, called the request “illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object, inhuman and diabolical, and cannot be complied with. Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade.”2
It was becoming clearer and clearer that the border states were coalescing, but would they secede?
Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts was a Brigadier-General of the state’s militia. For months now, he and his state had been preparing for war. Butler found himself in charge of four regiments. Two were already on their way by boat to Fortress Monroe near Norfolk, Virginia. The other two awaited trains to take them to Washington DC. The Sixth Massachusetts was the first to leave (the Fifth was scheduled to leave on the 20th). Their train would wind its way down the coast and through Baltimore.3
Powhatan Arrives at Pickens
The USS Powhatan, through a mix up, had been ordered to Fort Pickens in Pensacola. Originally, it was to be part of Fox’s fleet to defend Fort Sumter. On this date, it finally arrived at Pickens, which had already been reinforced with enough troops to hold the fort indefinitely. This addition, however, bolstered the garrison to 600 and added usable supplies and arms to the mix. Fort Pickens, unlike Fort Sumter, could not be so easily assailed.4
The Star of the West Captured!
The steamer The Star of the West was fired upon while attempting to resupply Fort Sumter on January 9th. Since then, she had found another purpose: evacuating United States troops from Texas.
Having anchored just off the coast near Indianola (between Galveston and Corpus Christi), the Star was receiving troops as they were ferried over from the mainland by a smaller craft.
Confederate Col. Earl Van Dorn had concocted a fine little plan. He and his 80 or so men had been in Indianola all day and acted like they didn’t care one way or the other about the Union troops. However, around 9:30pm, they quietly boarded the General Rusk, a light craft similar to the one being used as a ferry, and made their way to the Star of the West.
When they pulled along side her, the Star‘s Captain called out, asking what vessel was approaching.
Van Dorn replied, “The General Rusk with troops on board.” This wasn’t technically a lie, though the Captain of the Star did indeed believe that he was about to take aboard more of his own men.
The two ships were tied together to make the boarding as easy as possible. The Union troops suspected nothing at all until Van Dorn and his boys were up and onto the Star of the West and in command of the ship. No resistance could have been made and the ship was immediately surrendered and taken into Confederate service.5
- Cry Havoc! by Nelson Lankford. [↩]
- Official Records, Series III, Vol. 1, p79-83. [↩]
- Dissonance by David Detzer. [↩]
- The Naval History of the Civil War by David Dixon Porter, The Sherman Pub. Company, 1886. [↩]
- The Rebellion Record by Edward Everett — This is actually a copy of an article from the New Orleans True Delta. Their version of the story may be embellished a bit, but the facts were more or less checked with the book The Tarnished Cavalier: Major General Earl Van Dorn, C.S.A. by Arthur B. Carter. [↩]