First Shots: Stephen Rowan and the Fall of Fort Sumter

On the 4th April 1861 Commander Stephen C. Rowan received the following orders from Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy. ‘Sir: You will proceed immediately with the U.S. Steam sloop Pawnee to the navy yard at Norfolk, for the purpose of receiving a month’s supply of provisions. The commandant of the yard there will be directed to have them ready to be put on board immediately on her arrival.’ The instruction was the result of an order from none other than the new President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Rowan may not have known it at the time, but he was about to bear witness to one of the most momentous events in American history.

Commander Stephen C. Rowan

Stephen Rowan was born in Dublin in 1808, emigrating to the United States with his father a few years later. He joined the navy in 1826 as a Midshipman, and served in the Pacific and Mediterranean prior to the Mexican War, where he commanded one of the naval battalions in California (1). Now, as the Commander of the Pawnee, he complied promptly with Gideon Welles’ instructions. The following day, 5th April, saw another dispatch to Rowan from the Secretary of the Navy. ‘Sir: After the Pawnee has been provisioned at Norfolk you will proceed with her to sea and on the morning of the 11th instant appear off Charleston bar, 10 miles distant from and due east of the light-house, where you will report to Captain Samuel Mercer, of the Powhatan, for special service. Should he not be there, you will await his arrival.’

On 10th April Rowan was able to report to Welles from off Cape Henry, informing the Secretary that he was at sea having been delayed somewhat by an easterly gale. The Pawnee was one of a number of ships that was steaming towards a location that was soon to achieve worldwide fame- Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The southern state had been the first to secede from the Union following the election of Lincoln, doing so on the 20th December 1860. Soon afterwards U.S. army Major Robert Anderson withdrew the men he commanded in Charleston to Fort Sumter, as tensions began to intensify with the local populace. The situation degenerated into a siege, and in March Brigadier-General P.G.T. Beauregard took charge of the Confederate forces opposing the Fort. The risk of war drew ever closer. As food supplies began to run low, Lincoln ordered naval vessels to attempt to resupply the fort. Stephen Rowan and the Pawnee was one of these vessels.

The Pawnee, Stephen Rowan's command in April 1861

At 7 o’clock on the morning of 12th April 1861 Rowan and the Pawnee arrived at their designated position off Charleston harbor. A small paddle-wheel steamer approached his ship, which proved to be the Harriet Lane. A boat from the steamer approached the Pawnee and Rowan was handed an order dated 5th April. The order outlined just what was expected of the Irishman and his crew; the seriousness of the situation must have been immediately apparent to all concerned. The order that Rowan read was from Secretary Welles to Captain Mercer, indicating that he was being given command of four steamers, the Powhatan, Pawnee, Pocahontas and Harriet Lane with the object of provisioning Fort Sumter. If the Charleston authorities allowed the Fort’s resupply the force could do so an withdraw. However, if they prevented it, Mercer and his force were to ‘protect the transports or boats of the expedition in the object of their mission, disposing of your force in such manner as to open the way for their ingress, and afford, so far as practicable, security to the men and boats, and repelling by force, if necessary, all obstructions toward provisioning the fort and reenforcing it; for in case of resistance to the peaceable primary object of the expedition a reenforcement of the garrison will also be attempted.’

Next on board Rowan’s ship was Captain Fox of the Baltic, one of the vessels charged with resupplying the Fort. He indicated that he intended to attempt to reach Sumter in boats, and asked for assistance in doing so. The Pawnee had a launch and a cutter armed to aid the Baltic. As the minutes passed, the Harriet Lane and the Baltic stood in towards the bar, but very shortly afterwards the Baltic came out again. Captain Fox informed Rowan the forts and batteries were firing on Fort Sumter. The Confederates had started firing on Major Anderson and his men in an attempt to force their surrender before the naval force could resupply them. The American Civil War had begun.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, 1861, Engraving by George Edward Perine

Commander Rowan was able to observe that Fort Moultrie, Cumming’s Point, Fort Johnson and the sand and floating batteries were all firing at the Fort, which was responding with its own artillery. Captain Fox decided he would attempt to resupply the Fort the following morning, the 13th, with protection from Rowan. However, the Baltic grounded on Rattlesnake Shoal which further delayed any attempt until the following night. Meanwhile, the Pawnee noted a schooner passing close by, and suspecting it might be a ship belonging to the forces in Charleston Rowan fired three or four shots across her bows to force her to drop anchor. It transpired that it was a vessel from Philadelphia transporting ice, and the Irishman decided to commandeer her for the transfer of men and provisions. Events were destined to overtake Rowan’s plans. He describes what happened next: ‘This arrangement had scarcely been determined upon before a dense smoke issued from the weather side of Fort Sumter; for some time it was thought to be some floating fire craft dropped down against the walls to annoy and prevent the accuracy of Major Anderson’s fire. In two hours flames appeared above the ramparts on the opposite side of the fort from our position. At noon, or a little later, a body of flames curled far above the ramparts. We then became satisfied that the fort was on fire and feared that the gallant major and his little band would suffer severely….At about 2 o’clock the flagstaff on Fort Sumter was shot away, and we witnessed the sad spectacle of the fall of our flag, which we were so impotent to assist. In vain we looked for its reappearance over the fort; instead of this, the firing from Sumter became more and more weak, and at length ceased entirely.’

A boat was taken by Lieutenant Marcy under a flag of truce to the Confederate position at Cumming’s Point to determine if the Fort had surrendered. He returned with the news that it had. As part of the surrender terms the garrison of Sumter was allowed to depart with the ships. All that was left for Commander Rowan and the Pawnee to do was to assist in their transfer to the Baltic, and on 15th April he and the others made for Cape Henry.

Commander Stephen Rowan went on to perform well during the war, perhaps most notably in command of the naval contingent at New Bern during the Burnside Expedition. He remained in service until 1889 and achieved the rank of Vice Admiral. One wonders if he realised during those days in April 1861 that he was witnessing the start of a conflict that would drag on for four years and cause such untold death and destruction. He was one of the very few Union men who saw it all begin.

(1) Dougherty 2010: 18-19; Ayres 1910: 1

References & Further Reading

Ayres, Stephen Cooper 1910. Sketch of the Life and Services of Vice Admiral Stephen C. Rowan, U.S. Navy

Dougherty, Kevin 2010. Strangling the Confederacy: Coastal Operations in the American Civil War

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies Series 1, Volume 4

Fort Sumter National Monument



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Categories: Battle of Fort Sumter, Dublin, Navy, South Carolina

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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