Civil War Letters of Joseph Fountain, 6th New Hampshire Volunteers

Lot of 40 letters, most to his wife; one to his son, Frederick. Most also have covers.

Joseph Fountain was born in April 1817 in St. Neots, England, and emigrated to New York in July 1839, proceeding to Maine about November of that year. It is uncertain when he moved to New Hampshire. He enlisted in December of 1861 as a 44-year-old private. He had a wife, Mary Ann, and six children (Frederick, 18; John, 14; Cora, 9; Ida, 5; Willie, 3; and Charlie, 1; three others died in infancy - Elizabeth, Sarah, and Lucy). The draft had not yet been implemented (although there was talk of instituting one). One might wonder what would make a middle-aged family man volunteer for such hardship as military service. One of Fountain's first letters to his wife, written shortly after he arrived at the training camp in Keene, outlines his thinking:

…It grieves me to the very bottom of my heart that I have left you and my dear blessed children and the more I think of it the worse I feel, but I left all of you so dear, because I am head and ears in debt, and no chance to earn enough to extricate myself than by doing as I have done….you must not take it too much at heart but bear up, as I am trying to do, and think how much better it will be for me after being gone a short time, returning with money enough to pay all I owe and having people pointing at me saying there goes an honest man.

It should also be noted that at the time, military service was a quick way to naturalization, and Fountain took the oath of citizenship in March 1874. His oldest son, Frederick, accompanied him to Camp Brooks (Keene, NH). He seems to have found a position as servant to one of the officers (a position often filled, especially later in the war, by "contrabands"). “Frederick had made up his mind to go with us, and if he is sick or I find he cannot stand a camp life, I will send him home. He says he don’t want to come back at present as he can’t earn any thing there. All that Bliss gave him was just enough to pay his fare here after being there all this time, which I think pretty mean. He told me to say to you that he is well and thinks he will like it first rate. All that he will have to do, is to take care of the Capts. tent in his absence run er[r]ands and look after his things, as no gun to car[r]y or any thing to do with the soldier, or the fighting part. His employment will be very light, I will look after him and see that he takes care of himself….I had orders then to commence cooking thru days rations for one hundred and one men and get every packed to leave this place for Washington next Tuesday night. It is pret[t]y hard work but I g[u]ess I can stand it. They have styled me Capt. of the cooks.

According to his letter of 14 Jan. 1862, they proceeded from Keene to Washington (DC) where they took the railroad through Annapolis, then boarded the Louisiana and sailed to Fortress Monroe and Hatteras Inlet, a journey that took 14 days. The letter is on patriotic letterhead with a cannon on a caisson, "1776" on the left and "1862" on the right. Across the top is "Baby Waker." They then headed to a "camp near Fredericksburg" a couple days later. Disease, ever haunting armies, had already taken hold, though not yet the malaria, typhoid and dysentery that would kill so many over the next four years. “We expect to march some where the Lord only knows every minute, most all of our officers think we are going to have another fight. It has been bitter cold for the last two or three days. well let her rip, who’s afeard as long as we can only get wood to keep us warm. Some of our regiments have got the measles and they are dying of[f] pretty fast poor fellows. I counted thirty-five sick on our little regt. yesterday."

Being a cook for the regiment, he spends a lot of time describing the foods available. In early February one of his letters gives an idea of their meals in the field: rice and molasses, flapjacks, hard bread and fried pork, bean soup and hard bread, etc. They are back at Hatteras Inlet, and he decided to go to the local town on the island: "...such a set of miserable looking people and houses you have no idea. They are the nastiest, dirtiest set of human being[s] I think I ever see and the Island is worse than they are. It is nothing but a patch of sand and bog holes….We received two days rations of fresh beef, which is quite a rarity I assure you, as it is the first fresh meat we have had since we arrived on the island. We got two hundred pounds as our part for two days. Dinner Fresh beef and pudding of which I made sixteen and used up a quarter of a barrell of flour in making the same.”

They then move to Roanoke Island: “…We are encampt in a beautifull place on Roanoke Island, our camp is in a hard pine grove close to the water, and very healthy looking place, but we have a great many sick with the disentry [dysentery]. We have been the healthiest company in the regiment, we have only lost three by death, wile some of them have lost twenty. Roanoke Island is about fifteen miles long and three to four wide, it is a much better place than Hatteras, but the inhabitants and dwelling that I have seen so far are not much better, the soil is sandy and dry the people don’t appear to raise any thing but corn, sweet potatoes and cabbages and go a fishing, they are catching any quantity of shad now which we get all the way from six cents to ten each. The Islanders themselves are about the same as those on Hatteras a hundred years behind the times. I intend to go and have a look at the natives next week and see what they really do look like. …”

The previous letter gives a hint to another activity that Fountain seems to stumble into. The men are so impressed with his pies and puddings, that they start paying for more of them. In early June one of his longer, more personal letters informs his wife that he made an additional $200 by selling apple turnovers. In another undated letter from Roanoke Island: "I chartd forty dollars last month making apple turnover, and if I can only get drie’d apples and flour enough, I can make twice that every month…. I don’t have any thing to do with fighting, not even carry a gun so you have no occasion to worry yourself about me or Fred getting kill’d in battle, if he or I should go we have to stay in the rear with the doctors and surgeon’s….

Some time in mid-summer Fred goes back to New Hampshire, but apparently considers enlisting. Fountain asks his wife to not let him enlist: "…now whatever you do, don’t let him enlist, and if they go to drafting you tell them he is deaf and they can’t [h]old him. We expect to have a fight every day, as we are a very short distance from the enemy they had quite a skirmish the other night and our folks took a battery and drove the cusses(?)."

We have just received orders to through [throw] away all we can’t carry on our back’s, and you never see such a time there is, in nailing up boxes of all sizes to send home, and you will receive one from me in which I have sent my old quilt, for I did so hate to through [throw] it away and I want you to get up a quilting match and fix it up new again, I don’t know what else I have put in it only I know there is quite a variety.”

A short time later he acknowledges that he is glad she received the box and money he sent. He also asks her to arrange to send two gallons of whiskey, since he can't get any where they are.

There is a letter dated 9 August 1862 addressed to Frederick, the only letter in the group not to his wife. He notes that since Fred returned home, he has heard rumors that Fred intends to enlist. Fountain tells him: "...now you take a father's advise and don't do any thing of the kind...."

(On patriotic letterhead), 1 Sept. he is in Alexandria. "Here I am all right with the commissary stores. We left Bull Run last Friday with the stores, the battle was then raging fearfully. Our forces was driving the rebels when we left, since then the left wing of our army had rather a severe repulse. Report says by our men that our regiment is cut up very bad indeed there is only about two hundred left of those that where in the battle…."

About ten days later, on the 11th of September, he notes some of the hardships of war: "…I have not been very well the last two weeks on account of marching so much, and the want of a little rest, we have been on the march for five weeks and what is left of us are pretty well tired out, our legs refuse to do their duty in carrying our bodies. I have written this letter while resting on the march to day and have let our brigade go ahead and intend catching up with them this evening."

21 September, from Sharpsburg (Antietam): "Since I [w]rote my last we have fought two hard battle[s], and our army is victorius [sic] and a driving every thing in the shape of a rebel before it. We have kill’d an awful lot of them, and lost a great many of our men. I went over some parts of the battle field and it was a shocking sight I assure you to see the slain. We gain’d two big victorys. We expect to march again tonight or tomorrow morning, in ?ha? of the enemy. …Pete Moses and lots of my old friends was glad to see me I tell you. Deacon Noyes son Charles was kill’d in the last fight, and a man by the name of Tom Richards that used to keep the Maine Hotel got his arm took off above the elbow. Tell Fred’k and John they had better stay at home this winter, for they have no idea what privations they will have to put up with…"

He spends several more letters trying to find ways to keep Frederick out of the draft. Fountain thinks he may not even be tall enough to enlist, but if he is, then his wife should get a letter from the family doctor attesting to Fred's deafness. Anything to keep him out of the army...

By the end of October, they have left Maryland and are in Virginia (although his spelling of the state seems to reflect the local dialect): "…We have …crossed the Potomac and are now in old Vaginia again, and expect to see some more fighting soon, but dear little woman it is dreadful work to see men slaughtered the way they are shot and cut down, and their will be thousands kill’d, wounded and dye [sic] from exposure before this unwholly [sic] war is ended. I have just returned from paying a visit to Pete Moses and Charles Hill and a lot more of our boys it appears more like home to me now, since there is so many of my a[c]quaintances out here, and they all come to see Old Hoe as they call me…."

Nov. 9, 1862: "…as we advance, we are on the march (continually ever since we left Maryland) some times day and night…it is pretty hard for most of the new regiments who have just come out, they want the war to end as they get a little more than they bargain’d for. We have some mighty cold nights now, and it is very hard for the poor fellows to keep warm. We had a nasty drisling [drizzling] snow and rain storm the other day, which made it very uncomfortable marching…." By the end of the month, he tells her that the rebels are retreating fast.

Most of the next couple of letters are personal, such as requesting a flannel shirt a bit larger than the last one (he is gaining a bit of weight, in spite of all that marching). Dec. 14, 1862, camp near Fredericksburg: "We are fighting an awful hard battle and have lost a great many men out of two hundred and fifty in our regiment, we have lost about ninety kill’d, wounded and missing, this is the fifth day’s fighting, and the Lord knows how much longer we shall fight, but there is one thing sure our noble Genl. Burnside will not give in until about all of his men are kill’d, he will lick them if there any possible chance to do it…."

Then disease begins to take its toll. Jan. 1, 1863: "…Our poor fellows are sickening off very fast, through fatigue and exposure, and we can’t muster over two hundred men now fit for duty, although we had thirty return the other day from different hospitals, and some who where [sic] in the Bull Run fight, exchanged for rebel prisoners."

A couple times he gives Mary Ann some advice on home remedies when some of the children are sick. Jan. 5, 1863: "…I am very sor[r]y Ida is sick, and you had better get a doctor in season, in case she should be threaten’d with a fever. I hope and trust she will not have one, bless her little heart. Keep a good warm flannel round her neck and wet it with rum, and rub it with hartshorn and sweet oil mix’d together, or Pegy Davis’ Painkiller is a first rate lotion, for a sore throat. Get a bottle of that and rub her neck with it to or three times a day, get some chlorate of Potash dissolve it in water and let her wash her mouth and throat inside with it, it is a first rate thing for a sore mouth. The chemist [sic] will tell you how to mix it and what ever you do, don’t let her get more cold, and keep her dress’d warm…. Poor Mr. Kannon I g[u]ess was kill’d at the battle of Bull Run, I was very sorry, as he was one of the finest men we had in our regiment…."

In March, they were moved from the Army of the Potomac to the Army of Ohio. They would return to the Army of the Potomac the next year to finish out the war. In a letter from Newport News, VA, 14 Feb. 1863: "You will see by the heading of my letter that the 9th Army Corps have left the Army of the Potomac. We left our camp ground opposite Fredericksburg last Monday and arrived here on Wednesday night. We had quite a cold time on board the steamboats I assure you, having to lay on deck amongst the horses! All day in the open air, with my blanket only for a covering, we laid one night on board. At Aquia Creek and another at Fortress Monroe. Tell Fred we are encamp’t a little above our old camp ground… If there is any truth in camp stories, our old Genl. Burnside is a going to take command of us again, and we are all very much pleased at it for I assure you we think there is no Genl. like him. If he did get defeated in our last battle it was not his fault."

Lexiton [Lexington] Kentucky, April 2, 1863: "Here I am all safe and sound after a long tedious ride, by rail road and steam boat, of six days and nights. I have not time to give you the particulars, but will the next time I write..." The following month, they are still in Kentucky. Apparently the bourbon and other distilleries were appreciated even then. May 10: "…the boys love their whisky, and a great many of them – I am sorry to say – get to much of it. We have had more soldiers punished for getting drunk since we have been in Ky. than all the rest of the time we have been in the service…."

Near the end of May, illness hits the homefront again: "…I am very sor[r]y to hear that my two dear little boys have got the hooping [sic] cough. be sure and get the best medicine and advice you possibly can for them. Make some surup [sic] for them. Take molassas, vinegar and a pince of butt[er] and simmer them altogether on the fire and give them some every time they cough, and if I remember rightly we use’d to give about a tea spoon full of ??? wine to Fred when he had it, get surup of rhubub [sic] that is good….”  He goes on to tell her to get some goose or chicken fat to rub on their necks.

By mid-summer they are near Jackson, Mississippi. “I received your letter dated June 7th on the 4th of July. Since which I have been continual on the march and have not had any chance to write to you until now. We have been driving the rebs before us for the last fortnight. We arrived here the 7th and have been building entrenchments, rifle pits, and fighting all the time, and how much longer the fight will last, the Lord only knows....direct your letter  / 1st Brigade, 2nd Div. 9th Army Corps Mississippi." Word comes to them that the 2nd and 5th New Hampshire regiments were cut up badly at Gettysburg ("fights in Pennsylvania and Maryland"). He requests a local paper so he can see who was killed there.

Camp at Covington, KY, (with Cincinnati postmark), August 21st, 1863 (on patriotic letterhead) Fountain notes that he is glad to be back in Kentucky. They have had a hard time since they left Crab Orchard. The 6th fought at Vicksburg, then pursued General Johnston after the surrender of the city. After Johnston escaped Jackson (MS), they returned to Cincinnati by way of Cairo. "Our regt. left Penn with twelve hundred rank and file, and we can’t muster over one hundred and fifty men in our ranks now, and we have not over ninety of them that car[r]y guns the rest are in hospital, sick, wounded, discharged, kill’d or died by disease. If I don’t get a furlough soon, I intend sticking it out until November, and then go in for my discharge…."

They then proceeded to Nicholasville, KY (Camp Nelson). The men have mostly recovered, but the regiment still can't muster more than 90 guns. They were guarding the town from guerilla attacks, the way most fighting occurred there. They are still there in November, one of his last letters in this collection: "….As you have heard that I have been sick. I will tell you now I have been very sick, I got a severe attack of the Missippi [sic] fever, and I did not know for a spell but they would have to send me home in a box. I am happy to say that I am well and hearty now, growing quite fleshy, but trouble’d some with the rheumatism. I went to work yesterday cooking for my Capt. who as got his wife with him, and Capt. Jones and his wife, they mess together. I have a boy to do all my chores and wash dishes &c. it’s a very easy job. I have not done any duty or any kind of work, since the 26th of June and I don’t mean to work any more than I can help, you may depend upon it. I should not be surprise’d if we stay here all the winter, any way we all hope so."

Fountain was discharged for disability at Camp Nelson, KY a week later, on Nov. 9, 1863. He went to work as a barber in Somersworth (Great Falls) where he died July 10, 1895. Joseph and Mary Ann apparently had another son in 1865, Lewis, but he only lived to the age of 3.


Variable, as expected. Only a few were written in pencil, thus most are readable with little toning or water damage.

Estimate: $1,500 - $3,000
Price Realized Including Buyer's Premium

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