Story of Col. Edward Baker

Col. Baker

Col. Edward Baker
Edward Dickinson Baker "The Old Grey Eagle"

Soldier, Senator, Orator, Patriot and Statesman

Born in London, England, February 24, 1811, Edward Dickinson Baker was the son of Mary Dickinson Baker And her husband, a school teacher, Edward Baker. The family emigrated to the United States in 1816, initially settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, then moving to New Harmony, Indiana in 1825. A year later the family moved again, settling in Belleville, St. Clair County, Illinois.

With some formal education and military training in England at his father's school and exhibiting much native intelligence, young Baker later embarked on a course of self-education through varied, extensive reading, much as the young Abraham Lincoln. No doubt, his father encouraged him in this effort, and suggested readings which would and did produce the best mind possible, as borne out in later years.

Edward tried a brief, unsuccessful apprenticeship in weaving, and later drove dray in St. Louis. The Baker family, again seeking new territory, once more resettled, this time in Carrollton, Greene County, Illinois.

Young "Ned", as he was called by his father, at 16 years of age entered the study of law at the urging of Moses C. Bledsoe, an attorney and mentor, and the most influential man in Carrollton. He provided Baker with books for his studies and persuaded him to read law in the office of Judge A. W. Caverly, the leading attorney of the town. He passed his law examination in 1830, but didn't immediately enter practice. At the age of 19, he was too young to qualify for the state bar in Illinois.

On the 27th of April the following year, Baker married Mary Ann Lee, the widow of a former employer, who was left with two children, Frank and Maria. They had four children of their own: Edward, Jr., Alfred, Caroline and Lucy. Edward Dickinson Baker, Jr. served in the U.S. Army and was discharged with the rank of Major, and Alfred served as an Army surgeon in the Medical Corps. Mary survived Edward's untimely death by ten years, passing away in 1871.

In 1832, Baker enlisted as a private soldier during the Blackhawk Indian War, and due to military training in his early schooling, rapidly rose in the ranks and was discharged as a Major at the end of the conflict.

After the war, Baker settled his family in Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois where he finally began his practice of law. During this period he was associated with such notables as Abraham Lincoln, Lyman A. Trumbell, Stephen A. Douglas and other rising young jurists.

Baker and his associates participated in many spirited debates and discussions at Joshua Speed's Shop in Springfield developing their oratorical styles, rhetorical prowess and the abilities which would serve them well in future legal and political endeavors.

It was during this time when Lincoln and Baker became close personal friends, a relationship which would continue until Baker's death. At times political rivals, Baker defeated Lincoln in a race for the 29th Congress in 1844. Ned and Abe maintained a friendship which transcended a usual lack of trusted confidants of great men. This was perhaps due to both of these men, with their common educational background, recognizing that "quality of greatness" in each other, and, although occasionally rivals as well as associates, saw no conflict in holding differing views. Lincoln named one of his sons, Edward Baker Lincoln, after his close friend.

After variously serving from 1837 to 1846, in the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate and the 29th U.S. Congress, Baker resigned his seat in Congress and accepted a commission as Colonel of the Fourth Regiment of The Illinois Volunteers which he helped raise for the Mexican-American War. He distinguished himself in several campaigns, being wounded once. Taking charge of the brigade when his commanding officer, General Shields was wounded, he lead a successful charge and captured the enemy position at the battle of Cerro Gordo.

At the end of the war, Baker once again returned to Illinois, moving his family, and resuming his practice of law in the town of Galena, Jodaviess County. He was elected to the 31st Congress, serving from December 3, 1849, to March, 1851, but did not run for re-election.

A man of striking demeanor, Baker stood 5' 10" tall, weighing 190 pounds, with silver-grey hair, a prominent nose and keen blue eyes. His oratorical abilities flowed with the help of a commanding voice and a sharp intellect honed in the courts and the chambers of state and national government.

His first speech made in Congress in 1846, was in support of U.S. claims to the occupation of the Oregon Territory, going against his own Whig Party's opposition to the notion. Baker went so far as to advocate armed enforcement of the American claim to the northwest territory. Arbitration between the U.S. and Britain, however, settled the matter diplomatically.

Later, illness suffered while working on the Panama railway forced Baker to seek a cooler climate and in 1852, he moved the family to San Francisco. His facility with the law and oratory earned him his nickname "The Old Grey Eagle" during this time.

Together with Lincoln, Baker was one of the founders of, and, thereafter, politically ran under the banner of the Republican Party.

His strong beliefs against vigilante justice and pro-abolitionist view were responsible for his defeat in the Congressional race of 1859.

A duel involving a conflict over the slavery question between California's U.S. Senator, David C. Broderick and Broderick's former friend, California Supreme Court Chief Justice David S. Terry, prompted an oratorical tirade delivered by Baker over his friend Broderick's dead body, and resulted in the outlawing of the "code duello" for dispute settlement in the United States, as well as solidifying the people of California against slavery.

Baker's oratory prowess prompted representatives from the new government in Oregon to seek him out in California and petition him to return and run for the U.S. Senate from their new state. He accepted, and after a vigorous campaign on issues vital to Oregon and both northern and southern factions in the new state, Republican Baker was elected by the state legislature to serve commencing in March 1859. The second Senator elected was Douglas Democrat, James Nesmith, which balanced the slate.

Returning to a 100 gun salute in San Francisco, Baker tarried only long enough to make a few speeches in favor of the Union position concerning the fermenting problems brewing in the east and south, and prompting many to feel California's support of the Union was due, primarily to him.

Baker's credentials were presented to the Senate on December 5, 1860, and he presented the credentials of his fellow Oregonian James W. Nesmith to the Senate February 18, 1861.

Continued friction between north and south on the slavery question prompted Baker to journey to Pennsylvania, and organize a regiment referred to as the "California Regiment," later called the 71st Pennsylvania Regiment. Lincoln offered Baker a commission as Brigadier General, but he declined, choosing to serve at his former top rank of Colonel in order to retain his seat in the Senate.

Baker's refusal of a higher commission was not only to save his Senate seat, but to set at ease those Union Generals who were suspicious of his relationship with Lincoln. He delivered his last and most important speech to the U.S. Senate in his blue uniform and fatigue cap, in vigorous defense of the Union. Southern Senators were outraged as Baker verbally tore their arguments to shreds and all but accused them of outright treason.

Three months after his momentous speech in the Senate, then acting Brigadier General Baker, assigned to General Charles P. Stone, was given orders to cross the Potomac at Edward's Ferry with two thousand men and attack Confederate forces to drive them back. This would give Union troops access and allow a flanking attack to defeat the Confederates.

Since not all troops were able to cross simultaneously, a reduced force of just over 1,700 men was able to charge up the steep river bank toward the higher ground of Ball's Bluff into withering fire from an estimated 4,000 southern troops. Confederate sharpshooters, equipped with rapid-firing, Hall breech loading rifles, captured from the Harper's Ferry Arsenal, quickly cut down the inexperienced, attacking Union forces.

Three Union artillery pieces, a James rifled cannon and two mountain howitzers, were successfully brought across the river, disassembled and hauled up to the battleground on the bluff. There, they were reassembled and used to best advantage. The crew of one piece was decimated by rifle fire from the Confederates but was re-manned and continued to support the attacking Union forces.

At 5:00 o'clock, with a promised reinforcement's failure to appear, and vastly outnumbered, a charge mounted by the southern troops caught Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker, leading his men to meet it, and he fell dead with eight Confederate bullets in him.

In a brave, concerted effort, troopers under the command of Captain Louis Beiral withstood the enemy's charge to capture the colonel's body or his sword. He and his troopers recovered Baker's body themselves, and, with over half of the attacking Union forces dead, wounded or captured, retreated to the Potomac. To keep the artillery pieces from falling into the hands of the enemy, Union troops hauled them down from the bluff and threw them into the river.

General Stone was blamed for the defeat at Ball's Bluff due to inadequate intelligence, insufficient battle preparation, poorly trained troops, and failure to reinforce Colonel Baker in this most crushing defeat for the Union Army. Imprisoned for incompetence, he was later released, without trial, and restored to rank.

In the smallest United States National Military Cemetery at Ball's Bluff, Virginia, behind a rock wall, buried in a circle, are the remains of Colonel Baker's fallen troops. Outside the wall and remote from his men's graves, a lone headstone commemorates the death of Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker. Colonel Baker's body was embalmed and, as per his wish, sent to San Francisco for burial.

Killed in action at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Virginia, October 21, 1861, Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker was buried December 11, 1861, at Lone Fir Cemetery, San Francisco, California. His remains were re-interred, May 21, 1940, with those of his wife Mary Ann, and son, Major Edward D. Baker, Jr., at the National Military Cemetery, The Presidio, San Francisco, California.

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