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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 Signalman Albert Darnton, telegraph operator at Fort Columbus. Despite a history of disciplinary problems, your expertise with the new technology of the telegraph, recently installed at Governors Island, has kept you on active duty.
Telegraph Office: 1:00 PM
At 1300 hours a ciphered telegraph arrived from the headquarters of General Winfield Scott in Washington, D.C., which when decoded spoke at once to the urgency of the moment. The arrogant rebels in South Carolina had constructed heavy batteries at the mouth of Charleston harbor, and since an unarmed steamer like The Star of West would have no chance against such ordnance, the vessel must not sail. Knowing the order to countermand the mission must come from Commander Holmes himself, and being alone in the telegraph office (normally there are two operators on duty), I hurried myself to the South Battery where I knew him to be, taking with me the uncoded cipher in case he desired to confirm my work.
South Battery: 1:30PM
I presented General Scott’s cable to the Commander, who by his silence I knew perceived the gravity of the situation, for The Star of the West sailed to the brim with soldiers bound to relieve Fort Sumter, and were it to be sunk the loss of life would be prodigious. The Commander waved me in silence to the chart room, where none could overhear. “Who else has seen this message?” he asked. “No one,” was my reply, and thinking he did not trust my work, thought to bring out the uncoded cable. Before I could, he clapped me on the arm and set to writing a message of some six lines, which he quickly sealed and placed in my hand. “You will take this to Quarters 1,” he said, “my own residence in Nolan Park.”
Quarters no. 1: 2:00PM
Though Nolan Park was forbidden for any non-commissioned rating such as myself, the Commander explained that the paper in my hand should satisfy the sentries – and when I was challenged at the door to Quarters 1, I passed it over like a very trusting fool. The sentry takes one look at what’s written and tells me I have trespassed and am for the Brig. I reply that I am on the Commander’s business. All three sentries laugh and say I am the Commander’s business. In anger at this mistreatment I attempt to escape, but find my only path leads into the house. Before the sentries can follow I have the idea to hide the ciphered cable, so the proof cannot be taken from me and destroyed. As I am conveyed to the Brig most roughly, I think only of exoneration.
Through the window of my cell comes the voice of my wife Amelia, to whom I relate all. At the start, she does not credit my account, blaming drunkenness or mean temper, but I explain how I have hidden the cable at Quarters no. 1, and that she, a domestic servant in the Commander’s home may pass freely by the sentries to secure it, and so ensure my release. She departs, but in the hours that follow, I hear no word and wonder that she has failed-this sealing the fate of these 200 men. It is only as the daylight begins to fade that my cell opens to admit Captain Heintzelman, demanding why I should be confined. Knowing not if he has been sent by the Commander to test my compliance, I nevertheless confess a true account. The Captain shouts for my release, but then hurries off. In all anger at my mistreatment, I rush for the ramparts of Fort Jay, for I well know the proper flag code, and am determined to signal The Star of the West not to sail.
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.