Fort Moultrie's rear facade

Moultrie’s Commandant

A Soldier’s Recollection of 1860

Almost a quarter-century after being stationed at pre-war Fort Moultrie, an old soldier named James Chester — once a sergeant in Company E of the 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment, later a Union Captain — wrote down his remembrances of peacetime service under Lt.-Col. John Lane Gardner during that long-ago era. He began his tale by declaring that he had deliberately decided not to “read up and prepare a presentable story,” but rather to rely solely upon his memory, so as to recount his impressions all the more naturally and vividly. The following paragraphs constitute part of what he then recorded:

A U.S. Artillery Colonel being saluted at a fort’s entrance, while another cannoneer talks inside its guardhouse with an infantry sergeant, as depicted by Henry A. Ogden; the 1858-model forage caps and uniforms would undergo changes this same year A U.S. Artillery Colonel being saluted at a fort’s entrance, while another cannoneer talks inside its guardhouse with an infantry sergeant
It was my fortune to be present at the opening scenes of the grand drama of the American Civil War. There were but few of us on the Union side on that occasion, seventy-odd I believe, but to save my life I could not now tell exactly how many  ...  Fort Moultrie, where I was stationed, was a historic work. Its importance rested rather upon what it had been, than upon what it was. It was an enclosed work, bastioned on the land side. Its water battery consisted of eight or ten 8-inch Bomford Columbiads, mounted en barbette on wooden carriages. Its scarp was of brick masonry, and perhaps ten or twelve feet high. The land-front mounted 24-pounder guns and 8-inch howitzers. It was provided inside with barracks and quarters for two companies of artillery. The commandant’s quarters, hospital, commissary and quartermaster’s stores, and laundresses’ quarters were outside.
It was one of the regular defenses of Charleston harbor, and for that purpose was fairly effective; but as against a domestic enemy it was worthless. The sand had drifted against its scarp wall to such an extent that cows, tempted by the grass which grew on its slopes, had no difficulty in jumping in, and soldiers of convivial and owlish habits had no difficulty, even when too far gone to jump, in rolling over the rampart in time for reveille. The rebel leaders no doubt felt that they could walk into Fort Moultrie whenever they wanted to, in spite of the seventy-odd men which constituted its garrison.
The garrison consisted of two companies of the First Artillery and the regimental band. The companies were small, perhaps purposely kept so, numbering — if I remember rightly — about thirty men each. According to the organization, their strength should have been fifty-four, but yellow fever had played sad havoc among the men in 1858, and requisitions for recruits had remained unheeded. Hence the numerical weakness of the garrison.
The commanding officer was Lieutenant-Colonel John L. Gardner, First Artillery. Colonel Gardner was well advanced in years, but active, energetic, and perfectly competent. He was brave. His conduct during our yellow-fever trial two years before, proved that to the soldiers’ satisfaction; and they rarely make mistakes on that point. They had confidence in the Colonel, and felt that the honor of the Old Flag was safe in his keeping. But he had been born in Massachusetts. To be sure, he would have been a stranger in his native State. His manhood had been spent in the service of his country, and mostly in the Southern States. He had no visible politics, and no perceptible prejudice against the “peculiar institution.” Still, his birth was against him at that time, and in that place.
Harper's Weekly View of Fort Moultrie Colonel Gardner’s house at left, as seen from atop Moultrie’s north-western rampart; detail from a photograph taken by James M. Osborn after the subsequent shelling of Fort Sumter in mid-April 1861. The street intersection visible just to the right, corresponds to Middle and Station 12 Streets on Sullivan’s Island today
Then he was a religious man, and had a weakness for returning prodigals. He would rejoice over one reformed rascal more than over ninety and nine good soldiers, who needed no reformation. He was the first officer I ever heard talking religion to his men. I remember the points of his speech on that occasion; they were few, but forcible. It was Sunday; church call had sounded, and the men were paraded in accordance with an old Army custom. The Colonel approached, and the men felt they were in for a lecture. They had been neglecting their religious duties, and the Colonel knew it. He said substantially:
I want to say a word. Men — soldiers are men; and men are merely animals with a religion. Therefore soldiers must have a religion. There are only two religions: Christianity and infidelity. Therefore soldiers are either Christians or infidels. Which are ye? March the men to church.
It was a short sermon, earnest, opportune, and well meant, but fruitless. It was the old story of the horse and the water-trough. The men were marched to the church door, declined to enter, and were marched back again. The Colonel could not compel attendance.
John Lane Gardner PortraitCol. John Lane Gardner, possibly taken in 1848
He could not cram the Gospel down their throats, but he could compel them to listen to the Articles of War. This he did very frequently during the hour of divine service. The officer detailed to do the reading, who seemed to hate the whole performance as cordially as did the men, read in a rapid monotone, except when he ran across the words “shall suffer death,” which he did very frequently. These he read with all the emphasis he could command, pausing for a moment when the dread penalty had been pronounced, and glancing furtively, but in vain, for some symptom of repentance among the constructive infidels whom he addressed.

Gardner would nonetheless seem to have remained high in his soldiers’ esteem, as secessionism gained momentum throughout Charleston and South Carolina that autumn of 1860, while Moultrie’s tiny Federal garrison became increasingly beleaguered by official complaints and popular pressures. Chester recorded his own belief that the elderly Colonel eventually came to be viewed by the authorities as “an obstacle in the way,” who would have to be supplanted but:

Removing an old but active officer who was willing to serve, was less easy then than now. There was no retired list to which he could be honorably transferred; and if he would neither get sick nor ask for leave of absence, nothing remained but summary removal. In this case, the last method was inconvenient, unless it could be made to appear that it was done in the interest of the government. A report to that effect was necessary as a basis of action. So the Secretary of War sent an officer to inspect the work. I remember his arrival well. We all wondered what it meant; would it end in the withdrawal or reinforcement of the garrison? The officer sent was a Captain then, but has since become better known as General Fitz-John Porter. He wandered about the work for two or three days, and then returned to Washington. In a few days after, Lieutenant-Colonel John L. Gardner was relieved from command of the post, and Major Robert Anderson was appointed in his place.
Harper's Weekly View of Fort Moultrie View looking down from Moultrie’s north-western rampart at its Main Gate approaches, littered in mid-April 1861 with rubble and unspent rounds after the shelling of Fort Sumter. It would have been here that Major Anderson would have passed through the crowd of civilian onlookers

The latter arrived from Washington on November 21, 1860, and Sergeant Chester described his view of the actual hand-over:

The men, although sorry to part with their old commander, took to the new one kindly from the first. I remember well the day he took command. He had been down at Colonel Gardner’s residence, which was outside the fort, and quite a crowd of citizens had collected in front of the main gate to get a glimpse of the new commander. As the Major approached, the sentinel offered the appropriate compliment and salute, and the gates swung open for his admission. Acknowledging the sentinel’s salute, but declining the proffered compliment, he called for the commander of the guard, and directed that the gates be left open in future. Then, after hesitating a moment, he turned to the crowd and with a courteous gesture, said: “Walk in, gentlemen, if you wish to. We have no secrets here.”

The preceding account forms part of Sergeant Chester’s memoirs, which can be read in their entirety on Pages 550-559 of Volume X, Number 5 (May 1884) of the journal entitled The United Service: A Monthly Review of Military and Naval Affairs.

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