The ship was running slow in the dark, trying to feel its way into the channel.

It had arrived outside Charleston Harbor around 1:30 a.m., the crew mildly surprised to discover that all the city's navigational lights had been extinguished. The darkness, coupled with the haze, made it nearly impossible to see their target, even though it was only a few miles away.

For most of the night, the ship crept froward, the crew on deck taking constant soundings. Most times they measured the same depth: four-and-a-half fathoms, or about 27 feet. It appeared they were on the right course.

The boat was a civilian steamship with two masts and a side paddle wheel. To any casual observer, it appeared to be just another commercial steamship -- one more merchant vessel surfing the Gulf Stream. As the first strains of daylight broke over the Atlantic, the ship had made enough progress that it was nearly within a half-mile of Morris Island, and well within sight of its ultimate destination.

And then someone opened fire.

The first shot sailed over the top of the ship. Another buzzed the pilot house, and a third barely missed the smokestack. Finally, one shot found its mark. The ball hit the ship aft of the foremast and crashed through the deck.

The crew scrambled, some startled by the hit, others running to assess the damage. In the confusion, Capt. John McGowan glanced over at Morris Island -- obviously the origin of the attack. There he noticed a large banner flying above the dunes. It was a red flag with a white palmetto on it.

It was Jan. 9, 1861, and the Star of the West had just sailed into a war zone.

No surprise attack

The sentries on Morris Island had spotted the ship just after reveille.

The guards had not been overly surprised -- they had, in fact, been expecting the ship. Rumors of the Star of the West's mission had been circulating through Charleston for days, which was hardly a ringing endorsement of U.S. military secrecy. The federal government had hired the ship to deliver supplies and, Southerners thought, reinforcements to Fort Sumter.

The men on Morris Island would not allow that to happen.

There were nearly 300 troops on the island that morning. Most of them were from local rifle regiments, although 40 were cadets from The Citadel. Just after 7 a.m., Maj. P.F. Stephens ordered the cadets to fire a shot across the ship's bow, a warning that it should turn around.

The cadet who pulled the lanyard was G.E. Haynsworth, and he would go down in local history as the man who fired the first shot of the Civil War.

The troops waited minutes for a reaction from the Star of the West. They were patient, realizing it could take several minutes to turn a ship of its size. But the Star of the West never deviated from its course. Instead, it kept trudging forward.

Stephens watched for any sign of retreat but spotted an entirely unexpected reaction: He noticed men on the ship's foremast hoisting a United States flag. Given the circumstances, it was not the reaction Stephens had expected.

Nor did it have the intended effect.

Stephens ordered his cadets to open fire.

Southern hospitality

McGowan had little working in his favor: he was outgunned, outflanked and quickly running out of water.

When the firing began, the Star of the West continued to chug through the channel because McGowan felt he didn't have any other choice. If he stopped, the ship could drift and run aground in the outgoing tide. And getting stuck within firing range of Morris Island would have been a death sentence.

The captain gave no thought of fighting. The ship was unarmed and, even if McGowan had had guns, he was not about to start a war by returning fire. Still, he would not give up easily. He meant to reach Fort Sumter. But soon, he realized he had more problems than a Morris Island battery -- and he was headed straight for them. Ahead, McGowan spotted "a steamer approaching us with an armed schooner in tow." He assumed the ships meant to intercept him.

And while he was distracted by the warship off his bow, Fort Moultrie opened fire.

The Charleston Mercury would gush for more than a week about the "Heroism at Fort Moultrie." The firing from Morris Island had alerted the troops at Moultrie that something was amiss, and they quickly sprang into action. They, too, had heard the rumors and understood the consequences of allowing the Star of the West to reach Sumter.

The ship was an easy mark for Moultrie. To reach Fort Sumter, the Star of the West had to sail within a mile of the fort. But it wasn't that simple; there were other considerations. If Sumter decided to defend the ship, Fort Moultrie would be facing the full might of a superior fort. It was a dangerous predicament.

Ultimately, the state troops at Moultrie decided to open fire, no matter what the ramifications. It turned out to be a short engagement. Based on later reports, two shots from Fort Moultrie quickly hit the Star of the West, prompting McGowan to give the order to turn around.

Between the crossfire and the outgoing tide, it took more than an hour to get the ship clear of the bar. Even after the Star of the West reached open water, McGowan watched nervously as a steamer from Charleston followed behind for nearly three hours. It broke off when the Star of the West rendezvoused with its military escort ship, which was waiting far offshore. McGowan immediately sailed north for New York.

The firing on an unarmed ship had been an overt act of war, the Northern papers opined, but the Star of the West crew could joke about it by the time they reached New York.

"The people of Charleston pride themselves upon their hospitality," one of the officers told the New York Evening Post, "but it exceeds my expectations. They gave us several balls before we landed."

A city on edge

The Star of the West had the misfortune of arriving in Charleston at a time when locals were spoiling for a fight.

Since the new year began, the city had been on edge in part because of the news out of Washington. The Mercury reported that U.S. Secretary of War John B. Floyd recommended the federal government abandon Sumter to "prevent civil war." But President James Buchanan -- Abraham Lincoln had been elected but not yet inaugurated -- appeared disinclined to even consider such a notion.

Nor did the president show any interest in negotiating with Robert Barnwell Rhett, who had been sent to Washington to secure title to all U.S. property in the state, including lighthouses and forts. The Mercury kept the city informed of Rhett's progress, or the lack thereof, and suggested Buchanan's refusal to surrender Sumter constituted a "cause of war."

This sentiment echoed editorials from the Richmond Dispatch, which the Mercury often ran in its pages. Virginia, too, predicted the federal government would bring the country to war.

"What can be gained by attempting the recapture of Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney and the Charleston Arsenal?" the Dispatch asked. "Will their successful recapture bring back South Carolina into the Union, or prevent Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia from going out?"

By Monday, Jan. 7, the growing tension finally led to bloodshed. Around 10 p.m., a sentinel at Castle Pinckney was doing his rounds when he was approached by an unidentified man. The soldier hoisted his musket to warn that man off, but he fumbled the gun, dropping it.

When the musket hit the ground it went off, and the anonymous man fell.

The sentinel soon discovered that the man was Pvt. R.L. Holmes of the Carolina Light Infantry. The ball had hit Holmes just below the left shoulder and somehow managed to puncture both his lungs. He died within 20 minutes.

There was no war yet, but South Carolina already had suffered its first casualty.

Lines in the sand

Little more than an hour after the Star of the West made its getaway, a small boat flying a white flag sailed from Sumter toward downtown Charleston.

The man in the boat carried a letter from Maj. Robert Anderson that was addressed to the South Carolina governor. The Fort Sumter commander wanted clarification about the morning's events.

"Two of your batteries fired this morning upon an unarmed vessel bearing the flag of my Government," Anderson wrote. "As I have not been notified that war has been declared by South Carolina against the Government of the United States, I cannot think but that this hostile act was committed without your sanction or authority. Under that hope, and that alone, did I refrain from opening fire upon your batteries."

Gov. Francis Pickens, no doubt discouraged by Rhett's lack of success in Washington, was condescending in his reply. His letter, reprinted in the Mercury, suggested that Anderson had not been "fully informed by your government of the precise relations between it and the State of South Carolina."

Pickens said Buchanan had received a copy of the Ordinance of Secession and should understand that "sending any reinforcement of troops of the United States in the harbor of Charleston, would be regarded by the constitutional authorities of the State of South Carolina, as an act of hostility."

Anderson had made it clear he would not hesitate to fire on South Carolina if provoked, and Pickens had assured him that the state was no friend of the United States government.

Both sides had drawn their lines in the sand.

A new confederacy

On Jan. 12, a Mercury headline reported "Alabama is out of the Union." Two days later, word reached Charleston that Florida had also seceded.

In fact, Mississippi had been the second state to secede, doing so on Jan. 9 -- just hours after the Star of the West incident. By the end of the month, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had followed suit, bringing the number of states that had seceded to seven.

The political leaders of those states agreed to meet Feb. 4 in Montgomery, Ala., with the "grave mission," as the Mercury reported, of "constructing a Confederate Government for those States which have seceded from the Union of the late United States."

Rhett, who had failed in his mission to Washington, traveled by train to the convention. From there, he sent telegraph dispatches to his son, who relayed them to the people of Charleston through the Mercury.

The convention dragged on for more than a month. The delegates immediately dismissed suggestions that they should rejoin the Union and set about building what they considered a more perfect Union.

A week into the convention, the delegates had adopted a provisional constitution, most of which had been copied word-for-word from the U.S. Constitution. There were additional provisions added that addressed states' rights and declared the constitutional legality of slavery. The delegates also determined that this new government could not spend tax money from one state on projects in another. It was a common complaint among Southern states that the U.S. Congress had spent a disproportionate amount of its revenue on northern states. Some, in fact, cited it as a mitigating factor for secession.

Although these delegates contended their states had every legal right to secede, this new government would not be recognized diplomatically by the United States or any foreign nation (although many would trade with the South). It did little to abate the enthusiasm of the men in Montgomery.

The convention continued well into March, even though most of the larger issues were addressed in the first weeks. The Mississippi politician Jefferson Davis was elected temporary president. Rhett, despite his ambitions, would not be appointed to the administration and had to settle for a seat in the lower house of the Confederate Congress.

For the next several years, Rhett would often differ with Davis and the Confederate Congress. Things had not worked out exactly as he had planned, and Rhett -- as well as his Mercury -- would become a frequent critic of the Confederacy he long had dreamed of creating.

His disappointment was registered subtly at first. On Feb. 23, 1861, the Charleston Daily Courier published its first edition under a new banner which read, "Charleston, S.C., Confederate States of America."

The Charleston Mercury, however, would never add "Confederate States" to its title.