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Charleston Harbor Hijinks

By George Skoch
1/27/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Nearly a century after young Edwin Halsey’s prank almost sparked a civil war, gunpowder and mischief mingled again in Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1961. The occasion was the reenactment of the firing on the Federal steamship Star of the West. One hundred years earlier, Citadel cadets had skillfully directed more than a dozen rounds from a battery of 24-pounders on Morris Island to repel the vessel en route to reinforce Fort Sumter. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Bruce Catton claimed, “the Star of the West incident was the curtain raiser…in a very real sense the war began then.”

The National Civil War Centennial Commission slated the reenactment to open a nationwide commemoration. The event was months in planning. Retired Gen. Mark W. Clark, former commander of Allied Forces in the Italian Campaign during World War II, then president of the Citadel (the Military College of South Carolina), led this endeavor. Clark said he was eager “to make every reasonable effort to ensure that the reenactment was historically authentic.”

Logistics for the observance were impressive. Five antique cannons to be fired during the pageant were borrowed from collectors—including a rare, experimental ‘iron gun’ dating from 1838. (It was revealed afterward that had any of the cannons “failed to work the day of the firing, an auxiliary noise-maker was at the ready.”) Metro Goldwyn Mayer loaned 100 replica rifles. And one former cadet recalled having to requisition pantyhose and nylon stockings from some of Charleston’s most dignified ladies to fashion into ammunition powder bags “and make damn sure we did not overload the charge.”

Citadel’s Honor Company, 111 strong, was selected to work the guns. Distinguished for their achievements in the classroom and on the drill field, these cadets honed their skills on 19th-century firearms and artillery in addition to their modern equipment. All were fitted with reproduction uniforms. They were also ordered to let their sideburns grow and “to get regulation (1861) haircuts.” Even Clark would sport a vintage uniform and side-whiskers.

Response from the Charleston community was gratifying. Nearly 3,000 people lined the city’s waterfront the day before the main event as “Cadet gunners fired the cannon and ‘sharpened their aim’ in preparation for the reenactment.” Earlier that morning Catton had addressed the Corps of Cadets. That evening a “Confederate Ball” was held at the Citadel replete with costumed attendees.

The afternoon of January 9, 24,000 spectators, bolstered by local school children who were given a half-day holiday, “jammed the rails along The Battery.” There the cannons behind sandbag revetments lined the waters edge of White Point Garden. TV news anchor Frank Blair, host of the “Today” show and a native South Carolinian, narrated the centennial commemoration for a national television audience.

Where the Ashley River merged with Charleston Harbor, the USS Orleans Parish stood ready to face the guns. On loan from the Navy, the vessel was outfitted with faux side wheels and masts to portray the Star of the West on its fateful mission.

Beginning at 1:30 p.m. and for the next hour and a quarter, the entire Corps of Cadets led a parade through the narrow streets of Old Charleston to the artillery emplacements on the Battery. Honor Company cadets prepared the cannons to fire as the target ship “moves steadily, relentlessly forward.” The guns barked on schedule.

The USS Orleans Parrish ran the gantlet twice before “the event was over.” From a loud speaker on board during one pass came the announcement: “Cadets 2–Union Navy 0.” Only a handful of cadets knew what the score meant.

Unbeknownst to organizers of the event, Citadel cadets had loaded the cannons with tennis balls. Exactly how many were launched—and who fed them into the guns in the first place—remains a mystery. That night, however, while honored guests reveled at a banquet in a downtown hotel, two miles away on the campus of the Citadel cadets of Honor Company, confided one alumnus, “reveled in our ruse.”

 

Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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