Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Buried deep within volume six of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, is a communication to Louisiana Governor Thomas Moore, penned by a low level officer in Mississippi's early war army, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Fontaine. The message was either not read, ignored due to Fontaine's status, or tossed aside because he disagreed with General Mansfield Lovell, the man responsible for the defense of New Orleans. Fontaine's suggestions and beliefs are eerily on point with what the Union army and navy actually planned and accomplished. Fontaine feared the Federals might strike through the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, turning Polk at Columbus, capturing Nashville, then move to Memphis and beyond. This ordnance officer recognized the strategic importance of Vicksburg, and that merely fortifying it was not enough to stop its capture. Heavy guns and thousands of men were necessary to check any attempt on the all important "key." It was not until the fall of the Crescent City in April 1862 that measures were taken to prepare Vicksburg for a Union attack.
Had Confederate authorities heeded Fontaine's warnings, perhaps the Kentucky line and New Orleans could have been strengthened, and Vicksburg's defenses readied much earlier. Perhaps General Albert Sidney Johnston needed Fontaine on his staff, urging him to actually visit Forts Henry and Donelson, or even Nashville to see to it that his orders were being carried out. But, as we know, that did not happen, and Fontaine headed to obscurity without a commission in the Confederate army, while everything that he said might happen came to fruition.
Headquarters Army of the Mississippi,
Ordnance Office, Jackson, Miss, December 18, 1861.
His Excellency Thomas O. Moore,
Governor of Louisiana:
I hope you will pardon me for again calling your attention to the subject of the defense of New Orleans. I have entire confidence in your wisdom and patriotism and the ability of the officers whom you have intrusted the safety of our great metropolis; but persons at a distance from an object can see its position, with all its bearings, more distinctly than those who are in close contact with it. The plans of the enemy are now clearly developed. They intend to attempt the descent of the Mississippi without attacking Columbus or Fulton at all. Their object will be to reach Memphis and Nashville by movements up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and from Bowling Green, so as to compel General Polk to fall back upon Memphis and General Johnston upon Nashville. I believe they will be whipped if they attempt it, but they may not, and we should not let our hopes lull us into supineness and a neglect of our security. As soon as their army moves upon Bowling Green and their flotilla commences the ascent of the Tennessee from Paducah, you may expect their gunboats to enter Lake Pontchartrain and attempt the capture of Manchac and the occupancy of all the positions on Lake Maurepas and above your city accessible to a land force put ashore from their transports. Unless every pass is fortified on both sides and obstructed the attempt may succeed, for no batteries can stop the passage of steamers, unless their headway can be checked while they are held under fire. I shall go to Vicksburg tomorrow, to lay out our fortifications and to make an estimate of the number of negroes it will take to finish them. I feel confident that large force will descend the Mississippi, if one is moved up the Tennessee River, as soon as the latter succeeds in reaching a proper point for debarking for Memphis. I will fortify Vicksburg and prevent its capture, but I cannot prevent the enemy from burning it and passing it. I can keep them from entering the corporation, but they can shell it from the river and from the Louisiana side. A fort constructed at the bend above would guard the railroad approach to Vicksburg and the interior of your state, and prevent them from cutting a canal and turning the river through the narrow neck between the bends, which a small army could do in a single day. I believe that their designs will be thwarted by a kind Providence. God seems to fight our battles for us and to turn our very blunders into advantage against our foes; but still I should feel more confident if the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were closed on the military line between Generals Johnston and Polk; if a fort was opposite Columbus, to others opposite above Memphis, and two on the opposite banks of the bend above Vicksburg. This, with obstructions between Forts Saint Phillip and Jackson, and all the approaches from from the Mississippi Sound, east of the city and above it, similarly guarded, would insure the safety of New Orleans, if we had one strong brigade, with a thousand cavalry and two batteries of horse artillery, about the Bay of Saint Louis and the mouth of Pearl River. I think your greatest immediate danger threatens you from that direction.
With the highest regard for your excellency, and with the deepest regret that I have to differ in opinion with General Lovell, I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,
Lieutenant-Colonel and Chief of Ordnance, Mississippi Army
Lovell may have realized the error in discounting Fontaine, and once New Orleans fell, he immediately recognized Vicksburg's importance. In the court of inquiry for Gen. Lovell, one officer stated that once New Orleans was captured, orders were given to move men and material to Vicksburg in the amount of 2,600 men and 23 heavy guns. Another officer testified that Lovell ordered him to transport the guns and ammunition from the gunboats and transport them to Vicksburg to be placed for its defense. General M.L. Smith reported that by the time Admiral David Farragut's blue water naval ships reached Vicksburg and demanded the place's surrender in May 1862, he had successfully completed six batteries, "the cannoneers at their posts and fairly drilled."
For the Confederacy, whose initial defensive lines were crumbling on nearly all fronts, men like Edward Fontaine were sorely needed, yet not properly used to avail those situations.
Derrick Lindow is an author, historian, teacher, and creator of the WTCW site. His first book, published by Savas Beatie, will be released in Spring 2023. Go HERE to read more posts by Derrick and HERE to visit his personal page. Follow Derrick on different social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter) to get more Western Theater and Kentucky Civil War Content.
OR, Ser. 1 Vol. VI, 585, 783-784.
OR, Ser. 1 Vol. XV, 6.
Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Letter from Edward Fontaine to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus; January 11, 1862.
Smith, Timothy B., The Union Assaults on Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17-22, 1863, 11-12.