Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
April 12th will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. On that fateful day, the Coast Guard’s legacy service of the Revenue Cutter Service made history as the nation plunged into the abyss of civil war.
What turned out to be the war’s first naval combat mission paired up the day’s finest revenue cutter with the service’s most distinguished captain, Captain John Faunce. Faunce served as an officer in the Revenue Cutter Service since 1841 and rose to the rank of captain by 1855. He later won national acclaim serving temporary duty as an important member of the U.S. Navy’s 1858 South American expedition against a military regime in Paraguay.
With the April 1861 standoff between federal troops and Secessionist forces in Charleston, South Carolina, President Abraham Lincoln authorized an expedition to relieve Fort Sumter, including ships with 500 troops and an armed escort that included revenue cutter Harriet Lane. Commissioned in 1858 and named for the niece of unmarried President James Buchanan, the revenue cutter represented one of the most technologically advanced steamships in federal service in 1861.
During Harriet Lane’s voyage south, a severe storm separated the cutter from the convoy, so she arrived earlier than the rest on April 11. News quickly spread in Charleston of the cutter’s arrival. A few hours later, early in the morning of April 12, a Confederate cannon at Fort Moultrie opened fire on Fort Sumter to prevent the island fortresses reinforcement with any additional federal troops. This was the first artillery shot fired in the Civil War.
Later that morning, elements of the expedition found Harriet Lane at a pre-arranged rendezvous point and the revenue cutter tried to escort them to beleaguered Fort Sumter. By the time the ships neared the fort, artillery fire grew so heavy that they had to turn back. Harriet Lane returned to her station guarding the harbor entrance and later that morning the cutter observed the rapid approach of a steamer flying no colors. The revenue cutter ordered the vessel to come to and show her colors. The unidentified vessel ignored these signals and continued toward Charleston Harbor. Faunce ordered a 32-pound cannon shot fired across the steamer’s bow, which turned out to be the South Carolina steamship Nashville. Historians consider the shot fired across Nashville’s bow the first naval shot of the Civil War. The Nashville finally raised an American flag and Faunce allowed her to pass into Charleston Harbor; however, the steamer later became an infamous blockade runner and Confederate cruiser.
With a fusillade of cannon shot raining down on Fort Sumter, and no protection for the federal ships, further relief efforts proved futile. Federal forces within the fort finally raised a flag of truce and the relief expedition evacuated the survivors from the fort. Harriet Lane escorted the ships back to New York and continued to serve a vital role in Union naval operations until her capture by an overwhelming Confederate force at Galveston, Texas, in 1863. At Galveston, the former cutter was converted into a blockade runner and evaded the Union blockade only to sit out the final days of the war in Havana, Cuba. After the war’s conclusion, the former captain and cutter were re-united once again when Faunce and a crew traveled to Cuba to return the Harriet Lane to the United States.