Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

Fontain, the Scout, and the Besiegers of Vicksburg

The Civil War was not lacking in its daring and interesting adventures of scouts, spies, despatch-bearers, and others of that interesting tribe whose field of operations lies between the armies in the field, and whose game is played with life as the stake, this being fair prey for the bullet if pursued, and often for the rope if captured. We have the story of one these heroes of hazard to tell, a story the more interesting from the fact that he was a cripple who seemed fit only to hobble about his home. It is the remarkable feat of Lamar Fontain, a Confederate despatch-bearer, which the record of the war has nothing to surpass.

Fontain's disability came from a broken leg, which had left him so disabled that he could not take a step without a crutch, and in mounting a horse was obliged to lift the useless leg over the saddle with his right hand. But once in the saddle he was as good a man as his fellow, and his dexterity with the pistol rendered him a dangerous fellow to face when it became a question of life or death.

We must seek him at that period in 1863 when the stronghold of Vicksburg, on which depended the Confederacy's control of the Mississippi, was closely invested by the army of General Grant, the siege lines so continuous, alike in the rear of the town and on the Mississippi and its opposite shore, that it seemed as if hardly a bird could enter or leave its streets. General Johnston kept the field in the rear, but Grant was much too strong for him, and he was obliged to trust to the chapter of chances for the hope of setting Pemberton free from the net by which he was surrounded.

Knowing the daring and usual success of Lamar Fontain in very hazardous enterprises, Johnston engaged him to endeavor to carry a verbal message to General Pemberton, sending him out on the perilous and seemingly impossible venture of making his way into the closely beleaguered city. In addition to his message, he took with him a supply of some forty pounds of percussion caps for the use of the besieged garrison.

On the 24th of May, 1863, Fontain set out from his father's home, at a considerable distance in the rear of the Federal lines. He was well mounted, and armed with an excellent revolver and a good sabre, which he carried in a wooden scabbard to prevent its rattling. His other burdens were his packet of percussion caps, his blanket, and his crutches.

That night he crossed Big Black River, and before dawn of the next day was well within the lines of the enemy. Travel by day was now out of the question, so he hid his horse in a ravine, and found a place of shelter for himself in a fallen tree that overlooked the road. From his hiding-place he saw a confused and hasty movement of the enemy, seemingly in retreat from too hot a brush with the garrison. Waiting till their columns had passed and the nightfall made it safe for him to move, he mounted again and continued his journey in the direction of Snyder's Bluff on the Yazoo.

Entering the telegraphic road from Yazoo City to Vicksburg, he had not gone far before he was confronted and hailed by a picket of the enemy. Spurring his spirited steed, he dashed past at full speed. A volley followed him, one of the balls striking his horse, though none of them touched him. The good steed had received a mortal wound, but by a final and desperate effort it carried its rider to the banks of the Yazoo River. Here it fell dead, leaving its late rider afoot, and lacking one of his crutches, which had been caught and jerked away by the limb of a tree as he dashed headlong past.

With the aid of his remaining crutch, and carrying his baggage, Fontain groped his way along the river side, keenly looking for some means of conveyance on its waters. He soon found what he wanted in the shape of a small log canoe, tied to a tree on the river bank. Pressing this into, his service, and disposing himself and his 'burden safely within, he paddled down the stream, hoping to reach the Mississippi and drift down to the city front before break of day.

Success was not to come so easily. A sound of puffing steam came from down the river, and soon a trio of gunboats loomed through the gloom, heading towards Yazoo City. These were avoided by taking shelter among a bunch of willows that over-hung the bank and served to hide the boat from view. The gunboats well past, Fontain took to the current again, soon reaching Snyder's Bluff, which was lighted up and a scene of animation. Whites and blacks mingled on the bank, and it looked like a midnight ball between the Yankee soldiers and belles of sable hue. Gunboats and barges lined the shore and the light was thrown far out over the stream. But those present were too hilarious to be watchful, and, lying flat in his canoe, the scout glided safely past, the dug-out not distinguishable from a piece of driftwood. Before the new day dawned he reached the backwater of the Mississippi, but in the darkness he missed the outlet of the Yazoo and paddled into what is called "Old River."

The new day reddened in the east while he was still vainly searching for an opening into the broad parent stream. Then his familiarity with the locality showed him his mistake, and he was forced to seek a hiding-place for himself and his boat. He had now been out two days and nights. The little food he brought had long been devoured, and hunger was assailing him. Sleep had also scarcely visited his eyes, and the strain was growing severe.

Getting some slumber that day in his covert, he set out again as soon as night fell, paddling back into the Yazoo, from which he soon reached the Mississippi. He was here on a well-peopled stream, boats and lights being abundant. As he glided on through the gloom he passed forty or fifty transports, but had the good fortune to be seen by only one man, who hailed him from the stern of a steamer and asked him where he was going.

"To look after my fishing-lines," he replied.

"All right; hope you'll have a good catch." And he floated on.

Farther down in the bend of the stream above Vicksburg he came upon a more animated scene. Here were the mortar-boats in full blast, bombarding the city, every shot lighting up the stream for a wide space around. But the gun crews were too busy to pay any attention to the seeming drift-log that glided silently by the fleet or to notice the man that lay at full length within it. On he went, trusting to the current and keeping his recumbent position. The next day's dawn found him in the midst of the Confederate picket-boats in front of the city. Here, tying a white handkerchief to his paddle, he lifted it as a flag of truce, and sat up with a loud hurrah for Jeff Davis and the Confederacy. As may well be imagined, his cheers were echoed by the boatmen when they learned his mission, and he was, borne in triumph ashore and taken to General Pemberton's head-quarters. He received a warm welcome from the general, alike for the message he brought and the very desirable supply of percussion caps. It was with no little admiration that Pemberton heard the story of a daring feat that seemed utterly impossible for a cripple on crutches.

During the next day the scout wandered about the beleaguered city, viewing the animated and in many respects terrible scene of warfare which it presented, the fierce bombardment from the Federal works, extending in a long curve from the river above to the river below the city; the hot return fire of the defendants; the equally fierce exchange of fire between the gunboats and mortars and the intrenchments on the bluffs; the bursting of shells in the city streets; the ruined habitations, and the cave-like refuges in which the citizens sought safety from the death-dealing missiles. It was a scene never to be forgotten, a spectacle of ruin, suffering and death. And the suffering was not alone from the terrible enginery of war, but from lack of food as well, for that dread spectre of famine, that in a few weeks more was to force the surrender of the valiantly defended city, was already showing its gaunt form in the desolated streets and the foodless homes.

Fontain was glad enough after his day and night among the besieged to seek again the more open field of operations outside. Receiving a despatch from General Pemberton to his colleague in the field, and a suitable reward for his service, he betook himself again to the canoe which had stood him in such good stead and resumed his task of danger. He was on a well-guarded river and had to pass through a country full of foes, and the peril of his enterprise was by no means at an end.

The gloom of evening lay on the stream when he once more trusted himself to its swift current, which quickly brought him among the craft of the enemy below the city. Avoiding their picket-boats on both sides of the river, he floated near the gun-boats as safer, passing so near one of them that through an open port-hole he could see a group of men playing cards and hear their conversation. He made a landing at length at Diamond Place, bidding adieu to his faithful dug-out and gladly setting foot on land again.

Hobbling with the aid of his crutch through the bottom-lands, the scout soon reached higher ground, and here made his way to the house of an acquaintance, hoping to find a mount. But all the useful horses and mules on the place had been confiscated by the foe, there remaining only a worthless old gelding and a half-broken colt, of which he was offered the choice. He took the colt, but found it to travel so badly that he wished he had chosen the gelding.

In this dilemma fortune favored him, for in the bottom he came upon a fine horse, tied by a blind bridle and without a saddle. A basket and an old bag were lying close by, and he inferred from this that a negro had left the horse and that a camp of the enemy was near at hand. Here was an opportunity for confiscation of which he did not hesitate to avail himself, and in all haste he exchanged bridles, saddled the horse, turned loose the colt, mounted, and was off.

He took a course so as to avoid the supposed camp, but had not gone far before he came face to face with a Federal soldier who was evidently returning from a successful foray for plunder, for he was well laden with chickens and carried a bucket of honey. He began questioning Fontain with a curiosity that threatened unpleasant consequences, and the alert scout ended the colloquy with a pistol bullet which struck the plunderer squarely in the forehead. Leaving him stretched on the path, with his poultry and honey beside him, Fontain made all haste from that dangerous locality.

Reaching a settlement at a distance from the stream, he hired a guide to lead him to Hankerson's Ferry, on the Big Black River, promising him fifty dollars if he would take him there without following any road. They proceeded till near the ferry, when Fontain sent his guide ahead to learn if any of the enemy were in that vicinity. But there was something about the manner and talk of the man that excited his suspicion, and as soon as the fellow was gone he sought a hiding-place from which he could watch his return. The man was gone much longer than appeared necessary. At length he came back alone and reported that the track was clear, there being no Yankees near the ferry.

Paying and dismissing the guide, without showing his suspicions, Fontain took good care not to obey his directions, but selected his course so as to approach the river at a point above the ferry. By doing so he escaped a squad of soldiers that seemed posted to intercept him, for as he entered the road near the river bank a sentinel rose not more than ten feet away and bade him to halt. He seemed to form the right flank of a line of sentinels posted to command the ferry.

It was a time for quick and decisive action. Fontain had approached, pistol in hand, and as the man hailed he felled him with a bullet, then wheeled his horse and set out at full gallop up the stream. A shower of balls followed him, one of them striking his right hand and wounding all four of its fingers. Another grazed his right leg and a third cut a hole through his sword scabbard. The horse fared worse, for no fewer than seven bullets struck it. Reeling from its wounds it still had strength to bear up for a mile, when it fell and died.

He had outridden his foes, who were all on foot, and, dividing his arms and clothes into two packages, he trusted himself to the waters of the Big Black, which he swam in safety. On the other side he was in friendly territory, and did not walk far before he came to the house of a patriotic Southern woman, who loaned him the only horse she had. It was a stray one which had come to her place after the Yankee foragers had carried off all the horses she owned.

Fontain was now in a safe region. His borrowed horse carried him to Raymond by two o'clock the next morning, and was here changed for a fresh one, which enabled him to reach Jackson during the forenoon. Here he delivered his despatch to General Johnston, having successfully performed a feat which, in view of its difficulties and his physical disability, may well be classed as phenomenal.