John McGowan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 3, 1805. He took to the sea at age 13 and at 25 was appointed an officer of the United States Revenue Marine Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard), serving during the Seminole Indian War and the Mexican War. In 1849, then Lieutenant McGowan was detailed to establish life-saving
"boathouses" on the New Jersey coast between Little Egg Harbor and Cape May. In 1853, shortly after being promoted to Captain, he resigned to enter civilian life as
commander of merchant steamships and moved his family to Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Following the secession of South Carolina from the Union in December 1860, federal troops occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor refused to surrender the post to state authorities. The situation led to a standoff between the federal government under lame-duck President James Buchanan and the rebellious government of South Carolina. On January 5, 1861, Buchanan
dispatched the merchant steamer Star of the West, under McGowan's command, from New York on a mission to resupply Fort Sumter. When Captain McGowan attempted to approach the fort in the early morning hours of January 9, with his ship prominently displaying the United States flag, a South Carolina battery manned by Citadel cadets based on Morris Island fired a shot across his bow,
followed by two rounds which actually hit the Star of the West. McGowan, whose vessel was unarmed, aborted the mission and returned to New York. Historians commonly consider this engagement to be the South's first openly hostile fire against the Union.
On August 12, 1861, McGowan rejoined the Revenue Marine at his old rank and served throughout the remainder of the Civil War, organizing the "Mosquito Fleet," which patrolled and blockaded Chesapeake Bay. His wife, Catherine Caldwell McGowan, decorated their Elizabeth home with red, white and blue bunting at every Union Victory, and his son John
entered the navy, retiring as an Admiral in 1901. In the postwar era, the elder McGowan was again made responsible for constructing life-saving stations along the coast prior to retiring. He died at his longtime home in Elizabeth on January 18,1891, and was buried in nearby Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside. (Detzer, Allegeiance; NY Times Obituaries)
Author; Steven D. Glazer