Only a few weeks prior, on December 20th, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, becoming the first state to leave. Even before then tension had been building with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. With roughly 40% of the popular vote but almost 60% of the Electoral College, there was little doubt that he would be sworn in as the 16th President of the United States. It was a prospect that many in the South refused to live with. To them the Constitution created a voluntary union rather than a binding one, and they had the right to peaceably leave at any point.
On January 9th, 1861, almost two months before the Inauguration of the President-Elect, Mississippi, the 20th state to be admitted into the Union, became the second state to exercise what they believed to be their right. Congressman Lucius Lamar would draft, “An ordinance to dissolve the union between the State of Mississippi and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America’”, outlining not only its desire to secede, but to form a new confederacy with other states that would chose also to separate. In their declaration and justification of secession, they would argue, “Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England. Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.” Slavery would be maintained. Joining with South Carolina, they would remain firm in their assertion that these African-Americans were their property, and that the economic value of slavery outweighed the benefit of the 84-year-old nation, forged together under the Constitution just over 70 years prior.
Yet the hopes of a peaceful separation was perhaps quickly fading. What Mississippi Governor John Pettus, who campaigned on secession and the formation of a southern confederacy to preserve slavery, and other secessionists in his state didn’t know was that to the East, on that same day, the civilian steamship the Star of the West sailed for Charleston Harbor. It was loaded with supplies for the garrison stationed at Fort Sumter under the command of Major Robert Anderson, the man who in a few short months would, to the Union, become the hero of that first battle of the Civil War and promoted to Brigadier-General. It wouldn’t reach its destination nor fulfill that contract for the US Government. Major Peter Stevens, Superintendent of the Citadel, had received orders from South Carolina’s Governor Francis Pekins, to take cadets and man the strategic battery on Morris Island. If they were to see a vessel flying an American flag they were to fire. Three shots would hit the Spirit of the West, forcing the ships Captain, John McGowan, to turn and sail back to New York. Though open hostilities would not begin until April, the first shots of the Civil War had been fired as South Carolina openly defied the authority and the jurisdiction of the Union Government. Three days later Pekins would demand that the US Government surrender Fort Sumter and remove its troops from South Carolina soil, now, in the minds of the residents of that state, free of the ties that bound it to the United States. Of course it would remain in US possession until the first battle of the Civil War would be fought, almost exactly three months after his demands were made.
Mississippi, South Carolina, and the states of the Confederacy would eventually, after the long and bloodied war between the states, be brought back into the Union. Pickens, once so proud and defiant, would make the motion to repeal the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession. Lucius Lamar would receive a Presidential Pardon, and serve as the first Democrat elected to the House of Representatives after the Civil War, before election to the Senate, and appointment to Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior and, finally, the Supreme Court. The Star of the West, on the other hand, would meet an untimely fate. After being commissioned in by the Department of War, it would end up trading hands between the Union and the Confederacy, before being sunk in 1863. In the end it became just another bill for the United States to pay for its history of ignoring the issue of slavery, though, in this case, one that it could pay with a simple check to the US Mail Steamship Company. Other prices would be less monetary but much higher, taking longer to pay.