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Abraham Lincoln, A History, Volume 2 by John George Nicolay and John Hay

Part 8 out of 8

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On the same day on which, the South Carolina secession convention met
at Columbia, the State capital, Captain Foster had occasion to go to
the United States arsenal in the city of Charleston to procure some
machinery used in mounting heavy guns. While there he remembered that
two ordnance sergeants, respectively in charge of Fort Sumter and
Castle Pinckney, had applied to him for the arms to which they were by
regulations entitled. He therefore asked the military storekeeper in
charge of the arsenal for two muskets and accouterments for those two
sergeants. The storekeeper replied that he had no authority for the
issue of two muskets for this purpose, but that the old order for forty
muskets was on file, and the muskets and accouterments were ready
packed for delivery to him. Foster received them, and after issuing two
muskets to the ordnance sergeants at Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney,
placed the remainder in the magazines of those two forts.

[Sidenote] Humphreys to Foster, Dec. 18, 1860. W.R. Vol. I., p. 96.

Whether the vigilance of a spy or the subservient fear or zeal of the
storekeeper gave the Charleston authorities information of this
trifling removal of arms, cannot now be ascertained. The muskets had
scarcely reached their destination when Captain Foster was astonished
by receiving a letter from the military storekeeper saying that the
shipment of the forty muskets had caused intense excitement; that
General Schnierle, the Governor's principal military officer, had
called upon him, with the declaration that unless the excitement could
be allayed some violent demonstration would be sure to follow; that
Colonel Huger had assured the Governor that no arms should be removed
from the arsenal. He (Captain Humphreys) had pledged his word that the
forty muskets and accouterments should be returned "by to-morrow
night," and he therefore asked Captain Foster to make good his pledge.

Captain Foster wrote a temperate reply to the storekeeper, which, in
substance, he embodied in the more vigorous and outspoken report he
immediately made to the Ordnance Department at Washington: "I have no
official knowledge (or positive personal evidence either) that Colonel
Huger assured the Governor that no arms should be removed from the
arsenal, nor that, if he did so, he spoke by authority of the
Government; but on the other hand I do know that an order was given to
issue to me forty muskets; that I actually needed them to protect
Government property and the lives of my assistants, and the ordnance
sergeants under them at Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney, and that I
have them in my possession. To give them up on a demand of this kind
seems to me as an act not expected of me by the Government, and as
almost suicidal under the circumstances. It would place the two forts
under my charge at the mercy of a mob. Neither of the ordnance
sergeants at Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney had muskets until I got
these, and Lieutenants Snyder and Meade were likewise totally destitute
of arms."

[Sidenote] Foster to De Russy, Dec. 18, 1860. W.R. Vol. I., pp. 95,
96.

"I propose to refer the matter to Washington, and am to see several
gentlemen, who are prominent in this matter, to-morrow. I am not
disposed to surrender these arms under a threat of this kind,
especially when I know that I am only doing my duty to the Government."

[Sidenote] Foster to De Russy, Dec. 20, 1860. W.R. Vol. I., p. 101.

[Sidenote] Foster to De Russy, Dec. 19, 1860. W.R. Vol. I., pp. 97,
98.

According to his promise, Captain Foster went to the city on the 19th
to hold an interview with General Schnierle and "several other
prominent citizens of Charleston" on the subject of the alleged
"intense excitement" which was again paraded as a menace to induce him
to return the arms. If he was originally surprised at the reported
excitement he was now still more astonished to find that it did not
exist except in the insurrectionary zeal of those who were performing
this farcical role purely for its theatrical effect. A majority of the
"prominent citizens," who had been convoked as a part of the stage
retinue to intimidate him by the threat of a mob, had not yet even
heard of the affair. Detecting readily the sham and pretense of the
performance, he seems to have at least accorded them the merit of an
honest delusion. He quietly and politely explained to them the
regularity of his orders and proceedings, and the good faith of himself
and his brother officers. But he firmly declined to return the muskets
until he should be directed to do so by the Government. Yet willing to
go to the verge of his discretion to allay irritation, he agreed to
appeal immediately by telegraph to the Ordnance Bureau for a decision.

He had not long to wait for a solution of the question. The Government
was in all appearance deaf to the advice of its Secretary of State,
General Cass, of its General-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Scott, of its
Charleston Commander, Major Anderson, of its engineer, Captain Foster,
so long as the problem was the safety of three great forts. But when
the question became the possession of forty muskets, and the arming of
two ordnance sergeants, "men with worsted epaulettes on their shoulders
and stripes down their pantaloons" in the language of the Secretary of
War, that eminent functionary could sacrifice his rest and slumber to
the crisis. Captain Foster, who had returned from the city to Fort
Moultrie, was awakened a little after midnight to receive the following
peremptory instruction:

[Sidenote] W.R. Vol. I., p. 100.

I have just received a telegraphic dispatch informing me that you
have removed forty muskets from Charleston arsenal to Fort
Moultrie. If you have removed any arms return them instantly.

JOHN B. FLOYD, Secretary of War.

[Sidenote] Foster to De Russy, Dec. 20, 1860. W.R. Vol. I., p. 101.

It was probably in no hopeful mood nor with enviable feelings that this
brave officer returned by telegraph the strict routine answer of a
loyal subordinate: "I received forty muskets from the arsenal on the
17th, I shall return them in obedience to your order."[1] The necessary
consequence he embodied in his report to the department on the next
day: "The order of the Secretary of War of last night I must consider
as decisive upon the question of any efforts on my part to defend Fort
Sumter and Castle Pinckney. The defense now can only extend to keeping
the gates closed and shutters fastened and must cease when these are
forced."

----------
[1] "Although this would place my officers and Forts Sumter and
Pinckney entirely at the mercy of any mob, I considered myself bound
as an officer to obey the order, which I did by the prompt return
of the muskets by 10 o'clock that morning."--Foster, Report to The
Committee on Conduct of the War.

END OF VOL. II.

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