Thursday, September 14, 2017

Thoughts on 2nd Bull Run and the mystery of William H. Baker's death

155th Anniversary

On Saturday, August 26, I travelled up to Manassas to tour Chinn Ridge with a park historian for the 155th Anniversary of the battle of 2nd Bull Run.  The walk was to cover the Union armies defense of the ridge, as well as the progress of Longstreet’s massive flank attack that drove the Federals off of it on August 30, 1862.  During the fight, the Federals on the ridge were surrounded on three sides, and outnumbered by at least 3 to 1. The 13th Regiment lost 48 killed, of about 500 soldiers present at this action, -- the first active fighting in a major battle during their service.  It had been a long time to wait considering they had mustered in more than a year earlier.  As Austin Stearns described it,

"...we went through a field and up  a slight elevation and there was a sight to behold.  Longstreets corps was advancing in line of battle or in lines, for there was three or four, and to our eyes the field was full of men.  Firing immediately commenced, not only with us but all along the line by both sides; men commenced to fall;  ...On, still on, came the heavy lines of Longstreet's Command; no single line could stop them long, and gradually our line was being forced back, although we gave them a brave resistance and contested every inch of ground..."
After this fiasco the men were less anxious than before to see action than they had been prior to this "scrap,"— as some called it.

I was joined at the battlefield walk by a fellow researcher; renowned in the field of photographic jewelry and other topics, and on both of our minds that day was the story of 13th Mass soldier William Henry Baker, of Weymouth.

My colleague's interest in Baker began with the purchase of a 19th century sewing box, exquisitely built, with a note inside proclaiming it the handy work of William Henry Baker.

Baker, born March 23, 1842,  delayed a Harvard education to enlist as a recruit in the 13th Mass. Vols. the summer of ’62.  He was a talented young man, 5’8” tall, blond hair and blue eyes,  already accomplished for his skill in woodworking and other crafts. Unfortunately I don't have his photograph.

Remarkably, Baker’s 1860 diary exists in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and it documents his progress on the box.

"February 16, 1861.  “Worked on boxes for ambrotype taken.  Am going to have photographs taken.”
February 21, 1861. “Got my pictures this eve.”
My friend has done extensive research on the box and Baker.  William Henry as he liked to be called, was close to his sister Mary Ellen, who liked to sew, and it is supposed the box was intended to be used for her sewing kit.

  His other activities included school, reading, studying, attending temperance meetings, debate clubs, patriotic recruitment meetings, and woodworking.

He was accepted to the Freshman Class at Harvard University, slated to begin his studies on August 5, 1862, for which  he had prepped for months.  Harvard University Faculty records of a Special Meeting held, July 15, 1862 list the names of new students, and includes a  later update that lists at least 5 out of 55 total, including Baker, who did not show up. William Henry Baker chose to enlist instead!

Mary Ellen Baker, his younger sister was engaged to marry Captain Elliot C. Pierce; a conspicuous member of the Field & Staff of the 13th Mass.  Elliot joined the regiment at Fort Independence, Boston, rather too late to gain an officer’s commission.  But he was a friend of Colonel Leonard, and quickly advanced from Sergeant-Major to 1st Lieutenant, Company H, in early 1862, and Captain of that company very soon after.  Favoritism was suspected among the 10 Second-Lieutenants in line of promotion, that Eliot ‘jumped’ over.  Yet, it was agreed he was a good man, and he made an enviable military service record with the regiment. You can read more about him here.

Did William Henry’s relationship to Elliot influence his decision to enlist, or was it simply the patriotic fervor of the time that motivated him, or was it both?  Patriotic speeches and rallies were prevalent in the summer of '62.  The biography of Samuel S. Gould, another remarkable young man from Harvard, who joined the 13th Mass concurrently with Baker, states he [Gould] was very active at war rallies, encouraging his peers to enlist.  You can read about Gould here.  
 The recruits arrived in two groups.  Baker was in the first group of about 70 men that unfortunately arrived at the regiments' campground on Monday, August 18, 1862;  for this was the day that commanding General John Pope, learned the enemy across the Rapidan River had been heavily re-enforced and was planning an attack.  His army was in a trap and he had better make tracks or risk annihilation. Just as the recruits were meeting their new comrades in arms, orders came to march.  Fellow recruit, Clarence Bell gives an inside look at the passing scenes in his post-war memoir.

“As we marched into camp the Thirteenth boys came out from their tents to greet and welcome us to the field. All seemed heartily glad to see us, nearly every one of us finding acquaintances, school-mates or former "chums" in the ranks. The Regimental Band gave us a harmonious reception and Chaplain Gaylord welcomed us on behalf of the Colonel. Among other words of advice he cautioned us to beware of the wiley veterans and not allow them to "play points" on us; that our bright new dippers were very attractive to their eyes and might tempt them to make invidious suggestions of barter.
The recruits were, generally, permitted to select the companies to which they wished to be assigned, and the squad having been thus distributed, all began to adjust themselves to the new conditions.
"We were just beginning to be rested and fairly comfortable when orders came to strike camp and make ready for marching. It took but a few minutes to level the tents, or ponchoes, and, while waiting for further orders we cooked suppers and "turned in" near the camp fire and slept till about eleven o'clock. We left camp and after marching a few miles, halted on a muddy road, where we remained till morning, getting no sleep, for we expected the word "forward" every moment. The boys built fires, made coffee and with the ever ready pipe, stories, jokes and witty sayings the night was passed. Next morning we began the famous "masterly retreat” of Major-General John Pope. We passed through Culpeper and continued our march, with occasional rests, till nine o'clock P.M., when we arrived at Rappahannock Station; crossed the railroad bridge and after some maneuvering  went into camp. It was a hard march, especially for those who were so unaccustomed to it, the most tiring part of which occurred after dark, when obstacles in the road were invisible, causing us to stumble over stumps or stones, compelling frequent and somewhat strong expletives.
"At noon the regiment crossed the river and formed in line of battle, while the recruits were ordered to remain in the rear, where beneath the trees we passed the night somewhat anxiously. We were not to be engaged in battle (if one took place) except in case of need. Our number was insignificantly small, we were totally inexperienced and none had received arms, equipments or ammunition, yet many were anxious to take part, while several volunteered to assist in supporting and working the batteries.”
The recruits continued to suffer along with the veterans through General Pope’s bungling helter-skelter marches of the next two weeks, always in fits and starts, and with little to no food or rest, until the climatic battle of Second Manassas signaled the end of the campaign.  Baker was killed in the battle.  How and why Baker was caught in the action is unknown, as Clarence Bell wrote, the unarmed recruits were not yet required to fight.

“With an early start next morning we continued march till eight P.M., when we camped near the old battlefield of Bull Run. August 30th in column we moved forward a short distance, when we entered a grove and deposited our knapsacks for safe (?) keeping.  In the afternoon the Brigade advanced and ascended the hill on our left. The recruits (who had not as yet been supplied with arms or accoutrements) kept up with the regiment until reaching the brow of the hill, when the attack of the enemy became so hot that all were obliged to drop for safety. As the shot and shell came thicker and faster the recruits returned down the hill, when we were challenged several times by mounted rear guards and ordered to return to our regiment, but our explanation that we were "raw recruits" without arms or equipments, and our new appearance confirming our statement, we were permitted to pass; furthermore, in the intense excitement prevalent at the moment, orders could not be, or were not strictly enforced. We "retired in good order," getting out of the range of the messengers of death that whizzed and buzzed over our heads and about us."

Neither my colleague nor I, have found any details on Baker’s death.  The only ominous hint of it occurs in a letter written by her brother's friend, William Clark to Mary Ellen Baker, regarding her fiancĂ©’s wound.  Elliot Clark Pierce was wounded August 30, just above the left hip bone and was left untreated until the 31st.  He was sent to Burrows (Metropolitan)  Hotel in Washington and attended by Surgeon Clymer of the 13th Mass. Volunteers.  William Clark wrote:

Browns Hotel, Washington

Noon.  Thursday Sept 4th 1862
Miss Mary E. Baker,
I arrived here this morning at 8 o’clock.  Eliot is quite comfortable, being without fever since last evening – and having good quarters and attendance.  His wound is in an uncomfortable place on the left side where every motion of his body hurts him.  On my entrance to his room this morning I found him sitting upon the edge of the bed..  He is in excellent spirits and I shall use my best efforts to obtain a pass from the Provost Marshall to enable him to get home.  I learn with much regret that among the missing is the name of your brother, he is not wounded or killed, as all of both are accounted for.  He will probably come in either as a straggler or paroled prisoner.  Every hour brings them to light.

If I am able, it will be my plan to get to South Braintree by Sunday Morning train.  With regards to your mother + sister, to Mr. and Mrs. Pierce, your friend and servant,
William L. Clark

 Pierce returned home to recuperate, and married Mary Ellen on October 29, 1862.  Baker, of course, never came in. He is buried in Weymouth at Village Cemetery, the same place where Elliot was laid to rest many years later.  Baker was one casualty among many.