Who Fired The Actual 1st Shot of the Civil War?

Historical photo of William Simkins
William Stewart Simkins was born on August 25, 1842 in Edgefield, South Carolina. In 1856, he entered the Citadel, a South Carolina military academy. Simkins was on guard duty as the sun began rising on January 9, 1861 when he saw an alert signal from a guard boat in Charleston Harbor. The guard boat had detected the arrival of the Union steamship Star of the West entering the harbor. Since South Carolina had declared she had seceded from the Union several weeks earlier, this was considered a military incursion by a foreign power.

The Star of the West was a 172-ton steamship built in New York in 1852 for Cornelius Vanderbilt. She made regular runs to Nicaragua, Havana and New Orleans until she was chartered to the War Department on January 1, 1861. She was loaded with ammunition, food, uniforms and sundries in New York before being sent to deliver the supplies to Fort Sumter. 

After alerting the other cadets, Simkins loaded his cannon and fired upon the "Star of the West." Within seconds, his mates joined in. Although not damaged to a great degree, the ship was hit three times and the captain of the Star of the West considered it too dangerous to go on. He ordered the ship turned around and, with both paddle wheels churning, fled from the scene. Although the bombardment of Fort Sumter would not take place until April 12th, three months later, William Simkins had effectively just fired the first shot of the Civil War.

Grave of William Simkins & family
Due to the inevitability of the coming war, Simkins and his fellow cadets were graduated early on April 9th that year. Three days later, he was on duty once again and participated in the bombardment of Fort Sumter, marking the official beginning of the war. 

Simkins was commissioned as a first lieutenant of artillery and fought in a number of battles during the first two years of the war. He was named inspector general for General Hagood in 1863. He survived the war and surrendered as a colonel under General Joseph Johnston in 1865. After he surrendered, he and his brother moved to Florida and eventually organized the Florida Ku Klux Klan. He became a lawyer in 1870 and moved to Corsicana, Texas in 1873 where he established a law practice. In 1885, he moved to Dallas and established a law practice with his brother. The firm was very successful, but he moved to Austin to be a law professor at the University of Texas in 1899.

At the university, he became a very popular professor and his publications became standard textbooks across other schools in Texas and many campuses across America. He became professor emeritus in 1923, but still lectured once every week until he died in 1929. He is buried in a family plot in Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas.

Simkins was such a popular teacher and held in such high esteem that a new residence dormitory was named Simkins Hall and a green-space park on the campus was named Simkins Park. Simkins' history with the Ku Klux Klan in Florida was rediscovered and in 2010, the African American trustee, Printice L. Gary, made the motion to delete the name "Simkins" from the dormitory. The motion was unanimously approved and the dormitory name was changed to Creekside Residence Hall. The park was also renamed and the name "Simkins" has been disassociated from the University of Texas.

Postcard from the Frontier Times Museum

Years ago in America, there were hundreds of "dime museums," private collections of anything and everything the owners found interesting. Most of the time, the artifacts were simply thrown together in no particular order. Visitors were charged a nickle or 10 cents to see freak animals in jars, trinkets from faraway lands and strange, but realistic-looking fakes like "monkey boy" and "fish girl." Sadly, there are only a few dime museums left now. One of the best of those left however, can be found in the little central Texas town of Bandera at 506 13th Street. Founded in 1933 by J. Marvin Hunter, the Frontier Times Museum remains alive and well.

The haphazard arrangement of the many artifacts is part of its charm. As you walk through the rows and rows of display cases, you will come across a 2-headed calf skull sitting next to a collection of old Novocain syringes used by a dentist. A beautiful example of Native American bead-work shares space with a serpent made from hundreds of old English postage stamps. Look through the World War I and II memorabilia to see guns, equipment, ammunition and a German helmet with a large hole in the side and then gaze at the "Shrunken Head of Zorro" from a doglike creature that lived in the jungles of Ecuador and was unlucky enough to have been captured by Jivaro headhunters. In another room, you don't want to miss the shrunken human head which a few years ago was noggin-napped and missing for a while, but then returned after it was found in a plastic bag in a San Antonio parking lot. No doubt it was abandoned after the noggin-napper was afflicted with a South American curse.

The Frontier Times Museum does have a western theme as its name implies. There are arrowheads, branding irons, pistols, flintlock rifles, furniture from log cabin days, a bottle from Judge Bean's saloon, a map of Texas made from rattlesnake rattles, and the mounted head of a longhorn named Big Tex whose horns measure 7 feet 6 inches from tip to tip. But then, as you are looking over these artifacts, you unexpectedly come upon a magnifying glass under which is a pair of fleas dressed for a night on the town and a few steps away, next to the leather saddle used by a local cowboy who won a rodeo championship, is a stuffed lamb with two faces. 

Could you be in oddball heaven? You just might be.