The Star of the West is “Greenwood’s boat; it’s our piece of the Civil War,” says Mary Carol Miller.
Miller, Greenwood physician, writer and historian, has been working on a book about the famous steamship for the past couple of years. Miller’s “Star of the West” will debut with a book-launch reception at Turnrow Books at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The book focuses on the journey from Charleston Harbor to the Tallahatchie River and calls Star of the West “the steamship that changed the course of the Civil War.”
“I wrote it for Greenwood people who have grown up with this ... but also for people who wander in here, who wander into Greenwood, who may not have been here long enough to know it exists unless there’s something sitting on the counter,” she said.
Miller said it’s not an academic book or a book that focuses on war.
“It’s the story of the boat,” she said. “It is a unique book in that it has followed one element of Civil War history through its different phases rather than focusing on a battle or an individual.”
Like many in Greenwood, Miller grew up hearing tales of the Star of the West.
“I don’t remember the first time I heard of Star of the West. It’s just always been a reality,” she said.
Her mother, journalist Sara Criss, told her stories of the boat since she “was in diapers.”
“This was an obsession with her,” said Miller. “Although she knew nothing about Civil War history, in her mind this was the pivotal battle of the entire Civil War. That’s the way she presented it.”
Miller said her mother would pack a picnic lunch and take her to where parts of the ship still lie, caked in mud at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River near the western edge of Greenwood.
“We would go sit out there when Highway 82 was still just a two-lane highway, and there was no Cannon, no Pillow. ... She would take me out there, and we would sit and have a picnic, and she would go through the whole story of Star of the West as she knew it — some of which was accurate and most of which wasn’t. It made a great story, and I loved going out there.”
Her mother would tell her about a “monumental battle” with thousands of fatalities.
“It just wasn’t, but it was pivotal in its own way,” Miller said. “It was a tiny little chapter in the Civil War story, but in our story it’s huge.”
Miller’s fascination with the Star of the West started with her mother’s stories and continued when she wrote an article about the boat some 25 years ago.
“That was pre-internet, and it was actually the first thing I ever got published,” said Miller. “Then, I just sort of put the whole subject aside for a long time.”
When Miller moved back to Greenwood as an adult, she figured that the local interest in the boat had subsided.
“It got overgrown out there, and I just assumed everybody had forgotten about it — nobody cared about it anymore,” she said.
Then, in 2013, the Museum of the Mississippi Delta had an award-winning exhibition “War Comes to the Mississippi Delta,” which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pemberton that took place in March 1863.
The museum’s executive director, Cheryl Thornhill, asked Miller to speak on the Star of the West.
“I put together a little talk, and we had the room set up for maybe 15 to 20 people. We probably had 150 to 200 people there,” said Miller. “The amount of interest in this boat and that event just stunned everybody.”
The Star of the West’s Civil War fame came in January of 1861.
The boat was rented out to take troops and reinforcements to Fort Sumter, a sea fort in Charleston, South Carolina.
“You had this group of Union soldiers who were stuck on this island in Charleston Harbor and didn’t have any way to get food,” said Miller.
Cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy (now The Citadel), however, fired upon the ship. Those could be considered the first shots fired in the Civil War, some three months before the war officially began.
“If the Union forces stuck on Fort Sumter fired back at those cadets, the war would have started then. But it didn’t, so Star of the West was there as sort of an irritant three months before the war actually started.”
After the shots were fired, the Star of the West turned around and went back to New York.
“Then it kept popping up during the next two years in the strangest places,” said Miller.
“Star of the West” focuses on those two years and tells the story of how a Union boat ended up in Greenwood and was intentionally sunk in the Tallahatchie River and successfully blocked the passage of a Union flotilla headed for Vicksburg.
“That’s the story in here of what happened to this boat,” said Miller. “Because we all know it was at Fort Sumter and we all know it’s in the river here, but what happened in between?”
The Star of the West was a large ship at about 230 feet long.
“To imagine this boat, put it in perspective, think of the football fields at Ole Miss or State that are 300 feet long. Star of the West was two-thirds the length of a football field,” said Miller. “Imagine that coming through Greenwood.”
The ship’s length was larger than the Tallahatchie was wide, so it was sunk at an angle.
“The part that would have been blocking the river was dredged out in the 1870s,” said Miller.
When the water level is low, several who spend a lot of time on the river say they can see the remains of the Star of the West.
“Now, you really get sort of a feel in the mud that this could be the stern of a big ship,” said Miller. “It’s more of a suggestion, if you know what you’re looking for. ... Every time you go up the Tallahatchie on a speed boat or ski boat, you’re going right over it. It’s there.”
Miller dedicates the book to her mother and a friend, Ben Arnold, who encouraged her to write about the Star of the West.
The book was designed by Allan Hammons.
“Star of the West” came together for Miller “between Ben pushing me and Allan being available and willing to do it, and it was really an incredible design process.”
With only one press run, just 400 copies of Miller’s “Star of the West” will be available.
Proceeds from the book sales will go toward printing the next Greenwood book, “Greenwood: Mississippi Memories Volume V,” by Miller, Hammons and Donny Whitehead.
The historians are currently working on the book and are in need of pictures of life in Greenwood in the 1960s and forward.
• Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.