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FEATURES: CIVIL WAR UNITS: 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, USA [BACK]

Senator Edward Dickinson Baker

Edward D. Baker was a man of far-reaching experience, but like many other regimental commanders who populated the novice armies at this early stage of war, he lacked the requisite military experience to lead citizen-soldiers. As a former member of the California Regiment wrote years after the fact, the senator’s martial seasoning "was slight, when compared with that of the regular army officers." Edward Baker was born in London on February 24, 1811, to poor but educated parents who were members of the Society of Friends. When he was five-years-old, Edward and his family emigrated to Philadelphia where his father established a school. Apparently seeking a more enlightened existence, the Baker’s departed Philadelphia in 1825 bound for New Harmony, Indiana, an idealistic community founded along the Ohio River by British social reformer Robert Owen. Five years or so later they moved to Belleville, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. It was here that Edward attracted the attention of Governor Ninian Edwards who provided the young man full access to his well-stocked law library. Before long, however, the nomadic family packed its belongings and moved again, this time to the village of Carrollton, Illinois, about 60 miles north of Belleville, where Edward began reading law in the office of the town’s leading attorney. Shortly after his twentieth birthday Baker married Mary Ann Lee of Baltimore, Maryland.

Baker’s first taste of military action, other than some early militia training, was rather benign. In the spring of 1832, Black Hawk, the elderly chief of the Sac warriors, crossed the Mississippi River and entered northern Illinois where he attempted to reclaim land that he believed had been stolen from his people. Edward and a jobless young man named Abraham Lincoln were among the first to respond to Illinois Governor John Reynolds’ call for the state militia. Although he had volunteered for service as a private, Baker was immediately elected second lieutenant of his company followed 10 days later by promotion to first lieutenant. Edward’s command existed for about one month before it mustered out, apparently having never fired a shot in anger. Nevertheless, one of his biographers maintained that this brief and bloodless martial episode "improved the opportunity afforded of gratifying his [Baker’s] early predilection for martial pursuits." Later that summer, Baker and his family, which by now included four children, relocated to Springfield, Illinois, where he opened up a law office. The move afforded Baker the opportunity to become acquainted with Abe Lincoln who frequently traveled to Springfield from New Sangamon. Four years later, in 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield and the two lawyers to became close friends.

Edward Baker’s strong devotion to the ideals of the Whig Party bore fruit on July 1, 1837, when he won election to the Illinois House of Representatives. But the lawyer’s martial interests remained fervent and in the fall of 1844, soon after he had been elected to the United States House of Representatives, Baker found himself involved in a potentially dangerous problem that found its origins in the community of Nauvoo, Illinois, about 100 miles northwest of Springfield. Earlier that year, a group of Mormons living in the village along the Mississippi River organized a large military force commanded by Joseph Smith, the first elder and first president of the Mormon church. Before long, Smith and his group came face to face with an angry mob that had gathered near town intending to expel the Mormons from the state. Conditions reached a critical point in June when Smith, who had been acquitted of inciting a riot, and his brother were murdered. This turn of events did little to end the trouble and in late September, the governor of Illinois and Edward Baker, recently installed as colonel of the state militia, cobbled together a force to apprehend those men responsible for the murders of the Smith brothers. In the course of his mission the militia commander deemed it necessary to cross the Mississippi and enter Missouri without proper authority. Nevertheless, Baker negotiated with the fugitives and brought them back to Illinois for trial.

Baker did not take the congressional seat he had been elected to in August 1844 until the first day of December 1845. When hostilities broke out with Mexico over who held claim to the Rio Grande River the following May, Baker, his "martial spirit fully aroused," requested that he be given command of a volunteer regiment. Two weeks after Congress declared war on Mexico on May 13, Baker’s wish was granted and the congressman quickly raised the 4th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Before long the Illinoisans found themselves sweltering in Camp Belknap near Burrita, Mexico, along the Rio Grande, a location described by one soldier as "fit only for the snakes, tarantulas, centipedes, fleas, scorpions and ants that infested it." While here the volunteers were ordered to reinforce General Zachary Taylor in his siege of Monterrey. Baker’s men arrived at the village of Camargo, a bit more than 100 miles from the provincial capital, in the middle of October, by which time Monterrey was in the hands of American forces.

The congressman’s concerns were not limited to his regiment in Mexico and at the end of October, Baker returned to his seat in the House of Representatives. Clad in the uniform of a colonel of volunteers, Edward convincingly argued that more men were needed for the war effort in Mexico and successfully engineered a resolution that authorized the Secretary of War to supply much needed clothing to the troops in the field. Partisan politics may have reared its ugly head when a Democratic representative from Ohio complained that Baker was receiving pay as a colonel while he was a sitting congressman. The colonel resigned his congressional seat and soon rejoined the 4th Illinois in Tampico where he found that his men had been assigned to a brigade commanded by General James Shields, that included the 3rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry and a regiment of New York volunteers.

In middle of April, 1847, Baker and his men participated in a move against 4,260-foot-high Cerro Gordo Pass, about 40 miles northwest of Vera Cruz. General Shields had been charged with assaulting the left flank of a Mexican camp outside of the village of Cerro Gordo. It was either as the general’s regiments prepared to advance or as they were charging the camp that a Mexican battery of five pieces unleashed a volley of canister into the volunteers. A piece of iron struck Shields in the chest and passed through his right lung, an injury which by all accounts should have been mortal. Brigade command devolved to Colonel Baker who led the men through the Mexican camp and seized the road to Jalapa. Baker’s role in the Battle of Cerro Gordo has been disputed by some historians. Two of the colonel’s biographers claim that he and his men drove the Mexican artillerymen away from the battery. On the other hand, the author of a history of the Mexican War published in 1849 professed that Baker led the charge against an "enemy, already disheartened" who, being flanked by other American forces on the Mexican right, fired "a few random shots [and] scattered in all directions, leaving his guns, baggage, specie, provisions, and camp equipage, in the hands of the victors." In any event, while most of the American troops took the National Road to Jalapa, 10 miles to northwest of Cerro Gordo, Baker and his men made their way back to Vera Cruz and embarked on a steamer bound for New Orleans.

After he returned to Springfield, Baker was re-elected to Congress in 1848, and a few years later became involved in managing the construction of the Panama Railroad. While he was in Central America, Baker contracted a case of Yellow Fever that, according to one close confidant, "permanently aged him in appearance although otherwise he seemed to recover his full health and vigor." In April 1852, Baker and his family pulled up stacks and moved to San Francisco where he started a thriving legal practice and became acquainted with a 27-year-old lawyer from Philadelphia named Isaac Jones Wistar. Legal adversaries in court, Wistar and Baker developed a close friendship and in due time, the younger man joined Baker’s law practice. At the same time, Baker’s strong interest in politics was rekindled and in 1855 he stood as the Whig candidate for a seat in the United States Senate. He was certainly sagacious enough to understand that he had little chance to win in such a Democratic stronghold as California and, indeed, the result was as expected. Realizing that his political future lay elsewhere, at the end of 1859 Baker accepted a long-standing invitation to move to the new state of Oregon where he ran for the Senate on the Republican ticket. Although an overwhelmingly Democratic state, that party split along the slavery issue, and in October 1860, after a protracted selective process, Baker won a seat in the upper house. The freshman senator relocated his family to the familiar confines of San Francisco and set off on the long trip to the nation’s capital. While laying over in Panama, Baker learned that his friend Abraham Lincoln had been elected president of the United States.

Edward Baker took his seat in the Senate on December 3, 1860, two days after the start of the second session of the 36th Congress. The only Republican sent to Washington from the west coast, Baker found himself busy speaking out against secession and lending whatever support he could to President-elect Lincoln. He sharpened his already acclaimed oratorical skills gained from years of politicking and arguing at the bar. By the time of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Baker, an outspoken supporter of the Union and a staunch backer of the president, longed to play a greater, possibly military, role in what most people believed would be the quick destruction of the rebellion.

Baker chose for his second in command Issac Jones Wistar, a 31-year-old Democrat, ardent Unionist and an adventurous man of varied and far flung experiences. Descendent from a one of the oldest and best known Quaker families of Philadelphia, he had attended the best schools money could buy, including the venerable Haverford College, and was an esteemed member of the Religious Society of Friends. When he was 22 years old, Isaac, in the company of a party from Georgia, traveled to the west coast where he tried his hand at mining and lumbering along the Bear River. He hired out as a sailor on several Pacific Ocean voyagesand worked as a trapper for the Hudson’s Bay Company in such remote regions as the northern Rocky Mountains and the Arctic. In the early 1850’s Wistar led a unit of Indian rangers against hostile tribes that were threatening western settlements. He read law, passed his examination for the California bar in 1854, and began practicing in San Francisco. In Isaac Wistar, Edward Baker believed that he had a dependable man, a man whom he could count on to raise and organize the California Regiment in the shortest amount of time. Wistar appears to have been more than satisfied with Senator Baker’s assignment. Writing many years after the fact, he admitted that the chance to embark upon this project "was so tempting that my doubts and hesitations were swept aside."


FEATURES: CIVIL WAR UNITS: 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, USA [BACK]

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