Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 4: Star of the West

In Part 1 of this four-part series, I examined how the United States was able to capture and repurpose three Confederate ironclad warships. In Part 2, I continued that examination, expanding it to examine wooden vessels of the Confederacy captured and repurposed by the United States. In Part 3, I looked at United States vessels captured and employed by the Confederacy. For this final part, I wanted to look at one specific vessel in more detail: Star of the West.

Star of the West is fired on by batteries at Charleston Harbor, January 1861. (Harper’s Weekly)

The ship’s name may seem familiar to you. In fact, some claim that Star of the West actually facilitated the start of hostilities that became the US Civil War when it was fired on in Charleston Harbor in January 1861. After that incident however, most people do not even remember the ship existed, which is honestly a shame as its Civil War history is rich and much more detailed than the actions it is remembered for. A more detailed look at Star of the West is warranted and serves as the conclusion to my analysis and explanation of how Civil War forces repurposed captured enemy ships when possible.

Star of the West was never a vessel of the United States Navy. The sidewheel steamer was instead a civilian ship, part of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s transport fleet plying the waters between New York, the Gulf coast, the Caribbean, Nicaragua, and Panamá. It held cabins and support facilities for the transfer of over 1,000 civilians, making its use as a government transport invaluable. It was tapped in January 1861 in attempts to bolster the forces of Major Robert Anderson in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

Anderson had recently withdrawn his scant forces to Fort Sumter, calling for reinforcements and resupply. Originally, President James Buchanan wanted to send troops from Fort Monroe, Virginia to reinforce Anderson, sending them via USS Brooklyn. Plans changed quickly however, and Star of the West was instead contracted to deliver troops from New York.

Star of the West approaches Charleston Harbor, January 1861 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Captain John McGowan got underway from New York City on January 5, 1861. At the last minute, President Buchanan got cold feet and ordered USS Brooklyn to chase Star of the West down and cancel the operation, but the warship failed to catch up and the reinforcement plan continued on. The Vanderbilt steamer entered Charleston harbor on January 9, 1861, with Captain McGowan raising ““an immense United States garrison-flag.”[1] Secessionist forces were laying in wait. Cadets from the Citadel Military School opened fire on Star of the West, striking the steamer twice but causing no damage. Anderson’s Fort Sumter garrison manned their guns, but held their fire. Captain McGowan quickly ordered Star of the West to withdraw, leaving the question of reinforcing and resupplying Fort Sumter for another day.

After the secession of Texas and formation of the Confederacy, Star of the West was again chartered by the US government, this time to withdraw garrisons of regular soldiers at Indianola, Texas. On April 18, 1861, Colonel Earl Van Dorn led Texas militia, capturing Star of the West as it lay anchored in Matagorda Bay. Without a means of escape, the US garrison then surrendered.

The civilian steamer Star of the West became the Confederate warship St. Philip. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Taken to New Orleans, Star of the West was condemned as a prize and purchased by the Confederate Navy. Its large size and many cabins and support facilities made the ship a perfect multi-use platform. Renamed CSS St. Philip, it became the receiving ship for the Confederate Navy at New Orleans, training new recruits in how to be sailors. Acting Midshipman William V. Comstock, described in the New Orleans press as “very gentlemanly, affable and courteous,” took command of the steamer and by May 1861 CSS St. Philip housed 175 naval recruits undergoing training, as well as the crew of CSS Sumter as that vessel was converted into a warship.[2] By September 1861, a naval hospital had also been established on the steamer, caring for sick and wounded of Captain George N. Hollins’s Mississippi River Squadron.

CSS St. Philip remained at the wharves of New Orleans continuing its mission as hospital and receiving ship even as most of Hollins’s squadron was ordered upriver to defend the upper Mississippi. In January 1862, it was briefly considered for conversion into a blockade runner, but nothing amounted to this. When Flag Officer David Farragut successfully passed the forts defending the Crescent City in April 1862, the specie in the New Orleans mint was loaded onto St. Philip and brought upriver to safety.[3]

The steamer sought refuge up the Yazoo River where several gunboats and numerous civilian transports that escaped the loss of New Orleans and the disaster at the battle of Memphis upriver assembled. Now-Lieutenant Comstock however was sad to report that three sailors drowned on the way upriver. There it remained, supporting the garrison at Vicksburg for the next year by transporting supplies, serving as a floating barracks, and supporting miscellaneous naval operations.

Commander Isaac N. Brown commanded Confederate naval forces on the Yazoo River and in March 1863, he directed efforts of his few ships to support Fort Pemberton. This fortification was three miles north of Greenwood, Mississippi where the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers met. The fort, bolstered in strength by the labor of enslaved workers, was in a good position where land forces could not directly approach and where enemy ships had to slow down thanks to bends in the rivers. Fort Pemberton’s position of strength guarded Vicksburg’s northern approaches.

Detail of map showing the many separate efforts to seize Vicksburg. Note the Yazoo Pass Expedition and Fort Pemberton in the center. (Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com)

That March, Ulysses Grant was working to invest Vicksburg and one avenue of advance was past Fort Pemberton. He sent a combined force of several naval warships and river transports packed with infantry to Fort Pemberton in what became called the Yazoo Pass Expedition. The fort’s garrison prepared their artillery while Commander Isaac Brown sealed St. Philip’s fate, ordering it sunk at Fort Pemberton to serve as a river obstruction. On March 11, 1863, the ship was emptied of everything of value and scuttled beam into the river. The plan worked. Fort Pemberton staved off United States naval assaults and ground forces could not launch their own. Vicksburg would need to be invested from another avenue.[4]

What the case of Star of the West/CSS St. Philip can tell us is that many types of vessels were captured by enemy forces in the US Civil War. It was not always warships that were captured and repurposed, and often civilian ships later rendered invaluable service to their captors. I really like this ship’s story, likely because most people who have studied the Civil War are familiar with the Star of the West relief expedition that failed in January 1861. Very few however are aware that the steamer fell into Confederate hands, served as part of the Confederate Navy for two more years, and was sunk as a river obstruction.

To tie all four parts of this miniature series together one last time, ships were some of the largest pieces of government property used in the Civil War. Just like horses, cannon, wagons, and muskets, vessels of all sizes, type, and ownership often fell into enemy hands. Both sides took advantage of these captures, often repurposing captured vessels to benefit the captors. To be fair, some captured ships rendered little valuable service, but others helped change campaigns. At the very least, it makes for interesting research and discussion when someone learns that a Civil War ship might have had two or three names and served on both sides in numerous capacities.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Abner Doubleday, Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-‘61. (New York, 1876), 101.

[2] “The Confederate Navy,” Daily Crescent, New Orleans, LA, May 21, 1861; Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat: During the War Between the States, (Baltimore, MD: Kelly, Piet, and Co., 1869), 101.

[3] Mallory to Hollins, January 18, 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 2, Volume 1, 518.

[4] Neil P. Chatelain, Defending the Arteries of Rebellion: Confederate Naval Forces in the Mississippi River Valley, 1861-1865, (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2020), 246-247.

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5 Responses to Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 4: Star of the West

  1. I really enjoyed this series. It’s nice to see more naval topics on the blog.

  2. Jim Madden says:

    One connect to the Star of the West which may explain why this ship was used for these operations was Captain John McGowan and General Winfield Scott were both neighbors in Elizabeth, NJ before the war. Very likely Scott recommended McGowan’s and his ship being familiar with both.

  3. Mike Maxwell says:

    Excellent series. Neil Chatelain generates an appreciation for water-craft acquisition/ adaptation while exposing the convoluted nature of “naval” activity during the Civil War.

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