“…fired across her bow…”

The opening shots of the War between the States were fired in Charleston, South Carolina upon Fort Sumter  in April of 1861 or so the history books tell us. This event did provoke the war, but they were not the first shots fired.

Earlier in December of 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the union prompting other southern states to begin proceedings to do the same. The United States Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, formerly Governor of Virginia and a southern sympathizer, sent an order to the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh for a shipment of 124 cannons to be sent down the Ohio river to New Orleans for several U.S. forts being built on the gulf. The steamers SILVER WAVE and MARENGO were engaged to convey these cannon south. Upon hearing of these developments citizens of Pittsburgh formed committees to protest this action knowing these guns would be used to build up the arsenals of the southern states, sent telegrams to Washington. The commandant of the arsenal, John Symington, attempted to obey orders to ship the cannon. The guns and their military escorts, were halted on the streets by angry crowds on Christmas Eve and in one case delayed for several hours, though no violence occurred. Thirtyeight were on board the SILVER WAVE before the orders were countermanded.

“Fireeaters” in the south were enraged by the actions of the citizens of Pittsburgh. In early January of 1861 Louisiana seceded followed by Mississippi. Louisiana in order to build up its arsenal used state troops to capture the Baton Rouge arsenal with its U. S. troops without bloodshed. Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi soon responded upon; “Being advised by the Governor of Louisiana that he had reason to believe that an expedition would be sent down the Mississippi river to reinforce the Garrisons of the Forts and Arsenals of that State, I sent Capt. Kerr with sixteen of the Jackson Artillery Company, and ordered Capt. H. H. Miller to call out the Volunteer Companies of Vicksburg, and take such position as would enable him to prevent any hostile expedition from the Northern States descending the river.” (Message of the Governor John J. Pettus to the Senate and House of Representatives of Mississippi, Jan. 15, 1861, Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Mississippi, Jackson, 1861, p. 6.)

At Vicksburg four guns were placed at the “foot of the bluff, a quarter of a mile above the wharfboat.” It was reported that “blank cartridges were fired to bring to and cause to land the GLADIATOR, the IMPERIAL and the A. O. TAYLOR, and that it was understood that if the summons was not attended to, the next gun fired would be shotted” (Memphis Appeal, Jan. 17, 1861).

Other reports differ as to blanks being fired. The IMPERIAL “passed there during the night, and was forced to land at the behest of a twelvepound shot fired across her bows” (Memphis Avalanche, Jan. 17, 1861).

“The A. O. TAYLOR disobeyed the first injunction delivered by a sixpound shot, and a twentyfour pounder was loaded with chain shot, and aimed at the boat. Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, the gun misfired, and the boat got beyond the range of the battery. The TAYLOR landed at Butler’s wharfboat, was boarded by a detachment of military, and made to go back to the encampment, where she was thoroughly overhauled and then permitted to go on her way” (Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

New Orleans papers reported that the “Mississippians are in ‘dead earnest’ making all ‘foreign’ boats stop and give an account of themselves. . . . All Cincinnati boats will be stopped by the soldiers of the new Republic.” At Cincinnati and other northern river ports it was believed that the “object of planting cannon at Vicksburg was to capture the cannon expected down on the steamers MARENGO and SILVER WAVE, or any ammunition that might be forwarded South by the Government” and that it was a deliberate attempt to harass northern vessels. (Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 23, 1861, Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

Sam Clemens was also witness to these events. His fellow pilot Will Bowen wrote Clemens on Dec. 10, 1889 recalling, “with your own eyes you saw it all. Do you recall the first Gun of the war directed at you from the Vicksburg Fort, expecting to capture the Boat that had Floyd’s Pittsburg armament, going to Baton Rouge. You were on watch on the ‘Alonzo Child.’”


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