Sandlapper Society

Big Red & the Star of the West

by W. Thomas Smith Jr. • artwork courtesy The Citadel


Exactly 150 years ago, the North American continent's greatest clash of arms— the American Civil War— began right here in South Carolina. Why the war erupted— whether it was over the issue of slavery, a state's right to self-determination, high tariffs, the natural friction between the South's cavalier culture and that of the New England puritan, or a combination of all— is still being debated.

What there is no debate about is the magnitude of the war, the staggering losses on both sides, the physical and economic destruction of the South, and the official death knell of slavery across North America.

As far as who actually lit the fuse, it was South Carolina. The Palmetto State was the first to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, and shooting began in Charleston harbor weeks later, before the Confederate States of America were actually formed.

Ask most historians and they will tell you that the first shots of the war were fired April 12–13, 1861 on Fort Sumter (built atop shoals in the harbor) by Confederate guns strategically positioned around the harbor.

But some would argue that the first shots were fired three months earlier, January 9, 1861 when South Carolina coastal-artillery batteries— including a four-gun battery positioned on Morris Island and manned by Citadel cadets under the command of Maj. Peter F. Stevens, superintendent of the now-famous Military College of South Carolina— opened fire on the U.S. commercial paddle-steamer "Star of the West" in Charleston harbor.

The shots forced the "Star" to withdraw, aborting its mission of resupplying the besieged U.S. Army garrison at Fort Sumter, but not before the crew spotted and later reported seeing "a red Palmetto flag" flying above the cadet battery. And an official dispatch from Fort Sumter mentioned "a flag with a red field, and a white palmetto tree."

That flag— a red version of the blue state flag— known today as "Big Red," flies as the official "spirit flag" over the parade ground at the Citadel.

But how "Big Red" came to be, is as much legend as it is truth and tradition, because during the Civil War most of The Citadel's documents were sent to the Arsenal Academy in Columbia (in those days, freshman cadets of the S.C. Military College attended the Arsenal in Columbia before transferring to The Citadel in Charleston). And the Arsenal and the documents were burned when Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman made his way through the capital city in February 1865.

What we do know— according to an article by retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew D. Kullberg— is that "When cadets first arrived on Morris Island, they were presented with a red palmetto flag by the ladies of the Vincent family who owned most of Morris Island. A report in the Charleston Daily Courier dated January 28, 1861, says that the flag displayed a white palmetto tree on what was described as a 'blood red' field."

Kullberg goes on to describe the event: "[Maj. Stevens] gave Cadet Captain John M. Whilden, commanding the battery, the order to fire. Cadet George E. Haynsworth pulled the lanyard on the No. 1 cannon, sending the first shot across the bow of the 'Star of the West' as a warning shot. When the steamer failed to turn, Cadet Samuel Pickens fired a shot that struck the ship but did little damage. Cadet Thomas Ferguson fired a shot striking the ship and another that fell just astern. Altogether, the Cadet battery on Morris Island fired 17 rounds at the 'Star of the West,' with three rounds recorded as striking the ship."

So what became of Maj. Stevens? This Citadel grad (first in his class, 1849) resigned his position as superintendent soon after the firing on the "Star" to accept a commission in the Confederate Army. He saw quite a bit of action, rose to the rank of colonel, was wounded in the Battle of Antietam and, after the war, became a bishop in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He died in 1910.

On Jan. 8-9, 2011, a contingent of Citadel cadets dressed in 19th–century uniforms re-enacted the historic firing that tossed red-hot shrapnel on the nation's irrevocable path to war.

"The pride isn't in starting a war but in a bunch of youngsters being put in that position because they were considered the best-trained soldiers in the state," wrote Joey Holleman in The State newspaper following this year's re-enactment.

Indeed they were. And as the war progressed, South Carolina fielded some of the best artillerists in the entire Confederacy.

Today, the historic firing on the "Star" is not only memorialized through the flying of Big Red, but with The Citadel's "Star of the West Award," an annual award recognizing the school's "best-drilled cadet."

What I personally love about both Big Red and the Star of the West is that they are enormously symbolic of the Palmetto State's rich military heritage and tradition, though few Carolinians beyond cadets and graduates of The Citadel have ever heard of either— until now. 

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Look for more articles on South Carolina's military heritage and tradition, as well as our state's military impact on the nation and the world, in upcoming issues of Sandlapper. And read in depth W. Thomas Smith Jr. interviews with some of South Carolina's military leaders on midlandsbiz.com.

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