By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
The sturdy paddle wheels of the Star of the West beat rhythmically against the waters of the Atlantic as she steamed into Charleston Harbor. Packed with supplies and reinforcements for the beleaguered federal garrison holed up inside Fort Sumter, she entered the main shipping channel early on Jan. 9, 1861.
Her every move was watched by a contingent of local militia companies and other volunteers. These men manned coastal batteries and Fort Moultrie in defense of the newly independent state of South Carolina—and in defiance of the Union.
One of the volunteers on the rolls of Fort Moultrie, Jack Grimball, had up until recently been a Union navy officer. He acted decisively after South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860. On Christmas Eve he resigned his commission and tendered his services to the governor. The Charleston Courier praised him: “Nothing less can be expected of true sons of the South.”1
He was also true to his family in Charleston. One of six boys born to a well-to-do planter and his wife, John Grimball was known as Jack or Johnnie to friends and relatives.2 He left home in 1854 at age fourteen to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, graduated in 1858 and embarked on a career in the navy. Any dreams he might have had of fame and glory in blue was dashed after South Carolina seceded. He was among the first navy officers from the South to resign. Four of his brothers would also serve in the cause as soldiers in the infantry and artillery.3
Grimball’s first assignment as a Confederate was in the garrison of Fort Moultrie, which had been occupied by federals. On Dec. 26, 1860, garrison commander Maj. Robert Anderson moved his men to nearby Fort Sumter. The isolated brick and mortar fortress in the center of Charleston Harbor offered better opportunities for defense.
Meanwhile in Washington, outgoing President James Buchanan dispatched the Star of the West with a cargo of supplies and reinforcements for Anderson and his regulars. The steamer, an unarmed civilian merchant vessel out of New York, was selected instead of a warship so as not to fan the flames of rebellion.
News of the mission spread to Charleston, and it was interpreted as an act of aggression by a foreign power. When the Star of the West arrived in the harbor on January 9, Grimball and the rest of the state forces met her about daybreak. A warning shot was fired, and the Star of the West increased her speed and hoisted the Stars and Stripes. A flurry of artillery blasts followed. “As soon as five or six shots had been fired upon her from Morris Island, and as many more from Moultrie, it was evident that she would lower her colors to half-mast. She veered about so as to avoid any further messengers of this kind from the fortifications, which with one or two more discharges, finally ceased,” the Charleston Courier reported.4
Seventeen shots were fired, and two struck the hull of the Star of the West. Though the damage was minor, the effect was major. The ship turned and steamed back to the North without having accomplished its objective.5
South Carolina declared victory. Some claimed that these were the first shots fired in hostility during the Civil War. Others discounted the claim because the Star of the West was technically a civilian vessel. The bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, is acknowledged as the official start of the Civil War.
A few days later Grimball was commissioned a midshipman in the new Confederate navy. Thus began an odyssey during which he served on several notable vessels. His first, a converted merchant steamer commissioned the Lady Davis in honor of the wife of the Confederate President, defended Charleston Harbor during the early months of the war.
Grimball advanced to first lieutenant and in 1862 joined the crew of the ironclad Arkansas. On July 15, he commanded one of her bow guns during a successful run by the Union fleet afloat assembled above Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Following the loss of the Arkansas in August 1862, Grimball served a stint on the ironclad ram Baltic in Mobile Bay before being called to special duty in Europe. He posed for his carte de visite portrait in a Paris photograph salon about 1864.
Later that year he reported for duty to the Shenandoah. Grimball and his shipmates hunted Yankee merchant ships on the high seas during a yearlong cruise. Their exploits inspired Southerners during the waning months of the Confederate nation and prompted Northerners to brand them pirates. The Shenandoah continued to operate for months after surrender of the gray armies and dissolution of the government. The crew had heard rumors of the downfall of the Confederacy but had no confirmation of it.
The cruise of the Shenandoah ended on Nov. 6, 1865, when the vessel was surrendered to British authorities. Grimball and other officers were promptly released from captivity. Aware of rumors that they would be arrested as pirates and likely face the hangman’s noose if they stepped foot on American soil, Grimball and his fellow officers fled to other countries.
The rumors were false. Grimball spent a year on a ranch in Mexico and then returned to his family in South Carolina. By this time he decided to abandon the sea, and, with the aid of his father, studied law and became an attorney. Grimball practiced in Charleston for a short time, and then established a firm with a partner in New York City. In the early 1880s, “His heart turned toward Charleston and he came back,” reported a state historian. In 1885, at 44, he wed Mary Georgianna Barnwell, a belle half his age. They started a family that grew to include four sons. The marriage was Grimball’s second: The first, in 1875, ended tragically after less than a year when his bride died of disease.
Grimball was best known during his later years for his service on the Shenandoah, which by the late 19th and early 20th centuries had become celebrated as part of the Lost Cause narrative embraced by Confederate veterans. Grimball presented at least one speech on the cruise. After his death in 1922 at age 82 however, his service was placed in a larger perspective that took into account his time at Fort Moultrie and the Star of the West encounter. “Without a doubt this constitutes the longest service of any man on either the Union side of the Confederate side of the long struggle and makes a unique distinction,” declared the State newspaper in Columbia.6
Perhaps the finest tribute to his memory was personal. “Those who knew Mr. John Grimball in his later years will remember him with warm affection for many reasons, and, perhaps chief among these, for the youthfulness of his spirit. He was one of those men who seemed destined never to grow old. Years came upon him, but, until his last illness descended, his heart remained young,” noted one writer. “John Grimball will not be forgotten by those who shared his friendship and came within the influence of his buoyant, cheering, heartening personality.”7