Another Georgetown Civil War Story

History books inform us that the Civil War started in April 1861 in Charleston, SC with the bombardment of Ft Sumter in Charleston Bay.  This event provoked the war between the states, but the shots fired there were not the first act of war.  

The Pittsburgh Gazette, which had strongly supported Lincoln’s candidacy, had long given up on James Buchanan, the only native-born Pennsylvanian to be elected president.  When the president called for a national day of fasting and prayer, Russell Errett, the editor of the Gazette, wrote on 18 Dec 1860 that the country’s “great sin against Heaven [had been] in electing James Buchanan to the Presidency.”

Talk of secession had advanced beyond words.  In Dec 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union.  Others followed.  Rumors of war were rife in local newspapers.  A southern sympathizer, Sec of War John B Floyd under Pres Buchanan and former governor of VA,  sent an order to the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh to ship 124 canons to New Orleans and Galveston.  The steamers Silver Wave and Marengo were contracted by the US Army to transport the artillery south.  Col John Symington, the commander of the Allegheny Arsenal, attempted to obey the order from Washington on Christmas Eve.  When citizens of Pittsburgh learned of this action ─ from a whistleblower at the arsenal no doubt ─ the citizens protested, knowing that the guns would be used to fortify the south.  Angry Pittsburgh crowds halted the movement of the canons and their military escorts to the Monongahela wharf.  Thirty-eight guns had been loaded on the str Silver Wave before the crowds blocked the streets to the wharf.  To avoid violence the order for shipment was countermanded.  Further, Pittsburgh citizens threatened to blow the Silver Wave out of the water if it attempted to go down the Ohio River with the thirty-eight guns aboard.  The str Silver Wave never left the wharf. [1]

Southern politicians in Congress were outraged that ordinary Pittsburgh citizens threatened to interfere with military orders for the distribution of federal artillery and munitions south of the Mason-Dixson Line.  

The explosion caused by the protest of the honorable citizens of Pittsburgh was the first genuine act of war between the North and South.  Their activism reminds us of the need to resist – to do what is right. 

 Much later in 1863, the str Silver Wave was the first noncombat steamboat to successfully pass the Vicksburg batteries.  That feat was a big deal!  Vicksburg was deemed impassable – the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.  The Union convoy of three gunboats and the str Silver Wave and three other packets was riddled with holes carrying supplies to Gen Grant’s army below the city.  Many historians consider the fall of Vicksburg the tipping point of the Civil War.   In that campaign, Pittsburgh and Georgetown men played a significant role.  

The Silver Wave was a packet owned and operated by Capt John Smith McMillin.  Born on 23 Jul 1817 in Georgetown, PA, Capt John S McMillin began his river career keel-boating in the 1830’s and was the master and owner of several steamers.  He moved to Grandview Ave on Mt Washington in Pittsburgh in 1853.  In my heart, Capt John Smith McMillin will always be a Georgetown man.  His parents are buried in Georgetown Cemetery.  




[1]  , Standard History of Pittsburg Pennsylvania, (HR Cornell and Co, Chicago, 1893), p 548-549. 



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