Capt. Edward Fontaine, Co. K, 18th Mississippi Infantry, On the Battle

17 12 2022

Letter from Capt. Fontaine.


Camp near Leesburg, Va.,
September 6th, 1861.

Editors Mississippian: – I write this to explain the cause of the separation of a part of the Burt Rifles from the company during the battle of Manasseh.

The topographical sketch of the battleground sent with my letter some time since, will enable you to understand the explanation. It must be observed that the ground occupied by the 18th and 17th Regiments when the enemy opened their fire upon us, was of such a character that a line of battle could not be deployed upon it, except one of a very broken and irregular form; and before a single battalion was formed completely, the firing of the enemy had commenced. The bushes of a narrow and winding ravine, hid one half of the column from the view of the rest. The most of the companies were in four ranks and ready to form, as well as the nature of the ground permitted, when the first shot fell among them from the enemy, and the order to charge was given. In charging over the summit of a hill in crowded ranks the companies became mingled with each other. At one point I observed the men of several companies moving with my own in a dense mass six files deep. This was caused in part by the form of the ground, the contracted space, and the eagerness to be the first to reach our foes. When the charge was arrested unexpectedly by a steep wooded bluff, the wings of the company were widely separated by the intermingling of others. The dust and smoke caused by the bursting of shells, and the strokes of cannon, musket and rifle balls, and the fire of our own arms made all objects at times invisible at a short distance; and the noise of 72 or 75 discharges of artillery, from two batteries, the one about 400, and the other 600 yards distant, and the explosion of their missiles among us with the roar of our musketry made all orders inaudible for ten or fifteen minutes. At such a time the men on the left of the company could neither see me, nor hear my orders from the right.

When i ordered them to rally to the right, in order to extricate them, and form them to advantage, those who heard me, and could see me formed promptly, and I marched them to the right of the bluff I have mentioned and halted them in a ravine for a few moments until I ascertained the position of the enemy’s line of battle, and that of the part of the 5th South Carolina Regiment which had formed in advance of our right, and across Rocky Run, and under the hill upon which the enemy was posted. The firing from one of the enemy’s batteries and from all their left wing ceased at this time, and I saw them moving to the right of Col. Jenkins position, and I thought preparing to charge his right, on our regiments from that direction; and discovering at the same time an opening in the hills, and some paths descending from their position down to the creek at a crossing near his right, and seeing that it was entirely defensible by infantry and sheltered from their artillery; I marched the portion of the company with me to that point, and ordered them to use the bank of the creek, and the trees and other natural defences of the spot to hold the position. In performing this movement, I could neither see the rest of my company or be seen by them. The trees on the brow of the bluff in our rear where the charge was stopped by the impracticable cliffs hid me from their view. When the other companies of the regiments were withdrawn from the hill, unable to find me, they followed those with whom they had become necessarily mingled.

Lieut. Rines, of the Brown Rebels, and a number of privates of that and other companies, who had become separated from their proper commands in the same way, were with us. Those who were thus separated behaved with as much bravery and fought as well as those who kept their places. Every officer and private, with the exception of the few who fled to Manasseh, imagining that the withdrawal of the regiments from the hill was a retreat from the enemy, and who spread the report that the brigade was defeated, behaved with coolness and gallantry. Every man left the spot with his gun loaded, and ready and anxious to meet the foe. No man threw away his arms, or exhibited any marks of panic, with the exception of the few above mentioned unfortunate individuals.

Military men will be surprised to learn that any censure has been uttered against the commanders of the regiments for withdrawing their troops from a position from which the enemy could not be charged with the bayonet, or fired upon to advantage; and where they were exposed to a cross fire from two well directed batteries of 8 cannon, and several thousand minne muskets and long range rifles. An officer, who under the circumstances, held his command, without orders, and without an object, exposed to such a fire which could not possibly be returned with effect by common muskets, would certainly deserve to be censured by a court martial for his incapacity. He might not be a coward; but he certainly would be a fool. I heard no order to retire, or I should have obeyed it with alacrity. The regiments were reformed by Gen. Jones a short distance from the spot, at the junction of the McLean Ford and Union Mills Roads, to meet an expected attack from the direction of Centreville. The enemy retreated in that direction; and not knowing that the immense force we attacked was defeated, we supposed that the fight would be renewed at that point. There I found the rest of the Burt Rifles who were formed with the other companies of the 18th regiment and those of the 17th, apparently as ready to renew the fight as they were to begin it; but the enemy had seen enough of us, and were making the best of their way to Alexandria.

To accuse any of the officers and privates of the handful of 1800 rank and file who made a successful attack without the support of artillery or cavalry upon ten times their number strongly posted and with three complete batteries of improved artillery and a heavy corps of horse, of cowardice, exhibits a mixture of ignorance and malice which can only excite the contempt of chivalrous soldiers. I should have preferred having my proper command united; but feel satisfied that those who were displaced from their posts in ranks by the accidents of the day performed their duty heroically as independants, or under other officers as meritorious as myself.

I regret that newspaper correspondents have spoken of myself, and those of the company who happened to be with me, in a manner intended to be complimentary; but which places me in an invidious and false position. I have not authorized their statements, and am not responsible for them. For my actions on the 21st of July i feel that I did my duty, and care but little for what others think of them.


The Weekly (Jackson) Mississippian, 9/18/1861

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(Edward Fontaine was the Great-Grandson of Patrick Henry)