CHARLESTON, S.C. --- Gray-clad cadets from South Carolina's historic military college fired cannons Saturday on a barren, wind-swept island on Charleston Harbor to re-enact the 150th anniversary of a key episode leading up to the Civil War.
The event recalled what some consider the first shots of the war -- the 1861 firing on the steamship Star of the West that was trying to reach Fort Sumter with supplies and 200 federal troops. Cadets manning a battery on Morris Island hit the ship and forced it to turn back.
Sumter was never resupplied and the Union garrison surrendered after a Confederate bombardment the next April, the episode considered by most the first engagement of the war.
"We should be remembering our heritage. A lot of people don't know what happened here 150 years ago," said James Elliott, a 21-year-old senior at The Citadel. "It was 40 guys out here doing what they were trained to do and there are very few mentions of them in history and it's really sad."
About 20 cadets and their faculty advisers spent the weekend in tents on the island. As a tour boat chartered by school alumni passed by, they fired black powder -- but no cannonballs -- seven times, sending loud booms across the harbor followed by white smoke. They planned to repeat the re-enactment early today, the anniversary of the Jan. 9, 1861, engagement.
The incident is ingrained in the history of the military college, founded in 1842. The Citadel's regimental colors carry eight Confederate battle ribbons.
The best drilled Citadel cadet still receives the Star of the West Medal each spring. It incorporates wood from the historic vessel.
James Roark, a history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said even though memory of the war lingers in the South more than in other places, many in the South and elsewhere would find the re-enactment hard to understand.
"What is being celebrated by The Star of the West? It's actually a little confusing. Is it the celebration of fending off federal power?" he asked.
"I teach at Emory. We're not going to celebrate the defeat of the Star of the West," he said. "It would be politically impossible at the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia. It's only at these small, special places, military institutions particularly, that you are likely to see these kinds of things."
Steven Smith, a faculty adviser for The Citadel's Military Living History Society, said the cadets on the island this weekend experienced much of what their counterparts did 150 years ago. The modern cadets even had it a bit worse because at the time of the Civil War, there were buildings on the island. The cadets shivered in tents.
"We need to commemorate, not celebrate, commemorate," he said. "This is the history of the institution and it is what it is."
Bill Sansom, a Knoxville, Tenn., businessman, won the Star of the West medal as a Citadel freshman in 1961 during the Civil War centennial. He later became regimental commander, the corps' highest cadet officer.
A half century ago, he recalled, the commemoration was bigger, with the college's cadet corps marching to Charleston's Battery.
At the time of the 1861 engagement, he noted, South Carolina had declared its independence.
As the cadets who fired on the steamer saw it, they "were being good citizen-soldiers," Sansom said. "They were defending their homeland."