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Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Orders the Harriet Lane to Proceed to Charleston – Where It Would Fire the First Naval Shot of the Civil War
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“The Harriet Lane under your command having been detached from the Collection District of New York & assigned to duty under the Navy Department You are hereby instructed to proceed to within ten miles due east from, and off Charleston…”

By April 1861, federal troops at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, were running out of supplies. President Abraham Lincoln authorized a relief expedition, including ships with supplies and five hundred soldiers, escorted by four Navy steamers, including the former revenue cutter Harriet Lane. On April 11, the appointed arrival day, she became the first U.S. Naval ship to fire a shot at the beginning of the Civil War.

GIDEON WELLES. Autograph Letter Signed, Navy Department, Washington, April 5, 1861, to John Faunce, commander of the Revenue Cutter USS Harriet Lane. At the start of the Civil War, Welles orders the Harriet Lane to Charleston. With multiple emendations, possibly a retained draft. 1 p., 7¾ x 9¾ in.

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Complete Transcript

                                                                        Navy Departt

                                                                        Washington 5th April 1861


            The Harriet Lane under your command having been detached from the Collection District of New York & assigned to duty under the Navy Department You are hereby instructed to proceed to within ten miles due east from, and off Charleston light where you will report to Capt Mercer of the Powhatan for duty on the morning of the 11th inst, and, should he not be there, you will wait a reasonable time for his arrival.

                                                                        Gideon Welles

                                                                        Secrety Navy

Capt John Faunce

Comdg Steamer Harriet Lane

Historical Background

President Lincoln ordered Gustavus V. Fox to land with supplies only, but if opposed, to respond with the U.S. Navy vessels and land both supplies and men. This order by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to the Harriet Lane’s captain initiated that ship’s participation in this momentous event. During its voyage south, the USS Harriet Lane became separated from the other ships in a severe storm and arrived earlier than the rest of the expedition, as ordered, on April 11.  Meanwhile, on April 6, President Lincoln had informed South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens that he was sending supply ships to Fort Sumter. On April 11, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command of Confederate forces at Charleston, demanded the immediate evacuation of Fort Sumter. The Union Commander Robert Anderson refused, and a few hours later, early in the morning of April 12, Confederate cannon from Fort Moultrie opened fire on Fort Sumter to prevent the landing of any additional Federal troops.

Later that morning, the other ships rendezvoused with the Harriet Lane ten miles offshore, and the revenue cutter attempted to escort them to Fort Sumter. By the time they neared the fort, the intense artillery fire forced them to turn back. The Harriet Lane returned to guard the harbor entrance. When a steamer flying no colors approached the mouth of the harbor, the Harriet Lane ordered the vessel to identify itself, but its crew ignored the signals. Captain Faunce then ordered his crew to fire a shot from a 32-pound cannon across the steamer’s bow, which turned out to be the South Carolina steamship Nashville. Historians consider this shot to be the first naval shot fired in the American Civil War. The Nashville then raised an American flag, and Faunce allowed her to continue into Charleston Harbor. Later, the Nashville became an infamous blockade runner and Confederate cruiser.

Further attempts to relieve Fort Sumter proved futile, and Anderson surrendered the fort.  The Confederates allowed the relief expedition to evacuate the Federal soldiers, and the Harriet Lane and other steamers escorted the ships back to New York.

Gideon Welles (1802-1878) was a Connecticut native, journalist, Democratic state legislator, Hartford Postmaster, and Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for the Navy early in his career. In the 1848 presidential election, Welles left the Democratic Party over the issue of the expansion of slavery. Welles founded an influential Republican organ, the Hartford Evening Press, in 1856. Abraham Lincoln appointed Welles as Secretary of the Navy, and Welles was highly effective in mobilizing the resources of the country for an extensive blockade and offensive operations in the Confederacy.  Lincoln nicknamed Welles his “Neptune,” and Welles served as Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869.

USRC and USS Harriet Lane (1857-1881) was commissioned in 1859 out of New York and named for the niece of President James Buchanan. Two hundred and seventy feet long and twenty-two feet wide, equipped with a steam engine and side paddle-wheels, the ship represented one of the most technologically advanced steamships in federal service. It participated in battles at Fort Sumter, New Orleans, Galveston, and Virginia Point. The Confederates captured it at Galveston in January 1863, and converted it into a blockade runner, which evaded the Union blockade but remained in Havana, Cuba. Recaptured by the Union Navy, the ship was deemed unfit for further service, sold, and refitted for commercial service out of Philadelphia.

John A. Faunce (1807-1891) was born in Massachusetts and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Revenue Cutter Service in 1841.  He received promotion to first lieutenant in 1843 and captain in 1855. At the beginning of the Civil War, he was the commander of the USRC Harriet Lane. After twenty-nine years of service afloat, Faunce served on shore for eleven more years before entering semi-retirement.


Very fine; with usual folds.


From the Estate of Malcolm S. Forbes.