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In December 1860, with the authorities of South Carolina moving closer and closer to succession, the federal troops stationed at Charleston took possession of the newly made and highly defensible Fort Sumter, in the center of the harbor. Unfortunately, the Fort was gravely under-supplied and under-manned. The Buchanan administration, not wanting to further provoke hostilities, decided against sending a warship to relieve the Fort, and instead commissioned an unarmed commercial vessel to bring new troops and supplies.
Preparations were made and on January 5th, 1861, a force of 200 men, under the command of U.S. Army Lieutenant Charles R. Wood, was to board the steamer Star of the West at Governors Island, scheduled to set out for Charleston at 5:00 that evening.
At 1:00 that afternoon by telegraph from Washington, that order was reversed. But would that news reach Lieutenant Wood in time…
Janurary 5th, 1861. You are Captain Samuel P. Heintzelman, second in command at Fort Columbia, Governors Island. A veteran of the Seminole War in Florida, and the Mexican-American War, you have the highest respect for Commander Holmes, yet view the coming conflict between the North and South with great dismay.
Quarters no. 1: 2:15PM
Leaving my own dwelling in Nolan Park, I could not help but hear the angry shouting of a man being led away by 2 armed sentries. Naturally I went to investigate and found to my great displeasure that the arrest had taken place at – indeed, inside! – Quarters 1, the Commander’s own home. I questioned the remaining sentry and learned the offender’s identity: Signalman Darnton, to no great surprise. When I tactfully inquired as to his level of drink, the sentry demurred and handed to me a paper with a broken seal. I recognized the hand readily enough, the Commander’s own, and yet stood puzzled at the words, which demanded that the bearer of that note, Albert Darnton, be arrested at once as a non-commissoned rating trespassing in Nolan Park. “And that is the joke of it, sir,” the sentry laughed, “for he would never have come to the Park had not he been sent with the letter!”
Telegraph Office: 3:30PM
I put the Signalman from my mind, for I had duties enough, and the prospect of imminent war was made all too real by the vessel at our dockside, readying itself to sail. I paid my respects to Lt. Wood, and made sure of every detail of their mission, as the Commander had entrusted me. Yet returning from the dock my thoughts returned to Darnton when I passed the Telegraph Office, and found the doors had been locked! But why? Surely there were 3 other signalmen, and surely we must receive orders, at times of crisis more than ever. I resolved to punish whatever rash underling responsible and inform the Commander at once. Just then a woman approached the Office and performed what I assumed was my own dumbshow of pulling at the doors and tapping the glass – Amelia Darnton, the signalman’s wife, whose face I knew from her service in the Commander’s home. I made to speak, thinking to offer sympathy, yet when she turned, her determined expression stopped my words. She had not come to find her husband, but something else. Before I could question the woman, she ran.
South Battery: 4:00PM
Commander Holmes was not to be found at the South Battery, nor could the duty officer explain to my satisfaction where he might be. I asked why the Telegraph Office had been closed, and he claimed no knowledge that it had. I inquired whether Signalman Darnton had been seen. Indeed, I was told, and taken into the chart room in close conference with the Commander after delivering his message. What message, I demanded, but none of the 6 men on duty in the Battery could say, for the Commander had said nothing aloud, only written an order for Darnton to carry away – a reply to be cabled, they assumed. Yet it had been no reply, I knew, but a stratagem for the Signalman’s arrest. I heartily disliked to doubt a gentleman for whom I had the highest esteem, yet the conduct of Commander Holmes provoked only questions in my mind. But there was another man who knew the orders that cable had contained, and I hurried to his cell.
Despite my rank it was only with great difficulty – indeed, with threats – that I was permitted to see Darnton, itself an unthinkable prohibition for a man charged only with trespass. My heart already sick at what I feared, my fears were doubled by the Signalman’s tale. In a trice I see the dread possibility before me, if the The Star of the West sets sail – the ship battered, the good men lost, and the fuse of bloody war set alight. I reel from the cell, shouting angrily for Darnton’s release and feeling in my own body an anger at the partisan loyalty that has driven Commander Holmes to so betray his trust. Is this the cruel division that awaits the entire nation? It cannot be. I gather my wits while there is time and run for the ramparts of Fort Columbus, groping in my memory for the proper codes. The signal flags there may be seen by the ship – if I arrive in time …
Ramparts of Fort Columbus: 5:01PM
I stood on the rampart watching the flags I myself had hoisted flutter tautly in the stiff January wind. I hoped, no prayed, that the decision I had made was the right one and that the lives of those men aboard the Star of the West would be safe in any case. The die was cast now and I had played my part at the beginning of what was clearly destined to be an episode critical to the life, or the demise, of this great country.