An English-American Hero

By David Gleeson

On 13 May 1861, Queen Victoria, on behalf of her government, declared that the United Kingdom would remain neutral in the American Civil War which had broken out just a month earlier. In the process the UK gave belligerent status to Confederate States, a certain parity of esteem in the conflict that would allow the Rebels to purchase weapons and supplies in Britain. Public and private opinion in the United States, outside the South, was outraged. Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts declared the proclamation ‘the most hateful act of English history since the time of Charles 2nd.’[1] The proclamation led to a rebirth of anti-English feeling in the northern states that made life very uncomfortable for  the English living there.

Yet, just four days later the seeds were sown for a counter narrative of English loyalty to America in its greatest conflict. On 17 May the English-born Senator Edward Dickinson Baker of Oregon returned to his East Coast roots and sought to raise a regiment for the War from New York City and his childhood home, Philadelphia. At age fifteen he and his had family moved to Illinois and he eventually studied for the bar and became a lawyer in 1830. He rode the circuit there and became a Whig congressman in the mid-1840s, beating out another Illinois attorney, one Abraham Lincoln, for the nomination. According to one biographer of the 16th president, ‘Lincoln’s heart and admiration went for Ned Baker as perhaps to no other man in Springfield’ (the Illinois capital).[2] Baker resigned from Congress in 1846 to join an Illinois regiment in the Mexican War. He served with distinction and was re-elected to Congress in 1849.  He quickly became enamoured with the new state of California and moved there in 1852, leaving Congress for the second time. Settling in San Francisco, he had, by 1860, moved to Oregon and was elected to the United States Senate from that state as a Republican. His return to national politics brought him back in touch with Abraham Lincoln and he was a key member of Lincoln’s inaugural team.

The outbreak of War, however, gave him the desire to serve again and, with his experience from the Mexican war, he received a commission from Lincoln as brigadier general. He declined it because it would have meant resigning from the Senate, but instead took a commission as colonel from the state of Pennsylvania. It was in command of a regiment from that state that he found himself defending Washington, D.C., just up the Potomac from the Capital, in late October, 1861. Drawn across the Potomac into the Confederate state of Virginia, Baker became embroiled in the Battle of Balls Bluff. Although a fairly minor encounter, it shocked the nation as Federal forces were defeated so close to the capital. The even bigger shock was the death of Senator Baker. He died bravely leading his troops in battle. Upon hearing the news, President Lincoln weeped openly. For Lincoln: ‘Gone now forever was a trumpet, a shield, an intimate companion and a bright light of loyalty, namesake of his second-born boy.’[3] Washington, D.C. mourned and in the aftermath of the death of their colleague, Congress established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to oversee the effort against the Confederacy.

Newspapers acknowledged Baker’s birth in England and his immigration to America but it was the English societies who truly embraced his English heritage. Like the Irish with their Generals, such as Thomas Francis Meagher, English Americans celebrated their hero, who was the United States’s first martyr of the Civil War. The St George’s Society of Philadelphia, where Baker’s body lay in state in Independence Hall, was particularly quick to remind Americans that Baker had been born in ‘merry England.’ The Society adopted a series of resolutions and had them read into the minutes of the City Council. Among these, Society members acknowledged the grief they had at the loss of their ‘fellow countryman’ who had died in a ‘heroic charge against the rebels.’ The members also recognized the loss he would be to his fellow troops. Society members sent their condolences to his family, but they also believed that his sacrifice had a much wider significance.  Baker was a ‘practical illustration of the superior opportunities afforded by the democratic institutions of this country to every naturalized citizen to attain the highest honors—after the Presidency itself—in the gift of the government and people of the United States.’ Ultimately, the life and death of Baker ‘in the dark hour of his adopted country’s peril, merits the honor and emulation of his surviving fellow citizens.’[4] In the aftermath of the controversy over the UK’s granting of belligerent rights, these English immigrants were reminding their native neighbours that they too were loyal to ‘the democratic institutions of this country.’ This was a classic ethnic sentiment, one repeated in Hibernian, St Andrew and German societies throughout the country. Baker’s death did not just mark the death of an American hero, but an English-American one too.

[1] Quoted in Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy:  A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p.45.

[2] Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln:  The Prairie Years and the War Years (Boston:  Harcourt Brace, 1982 ), p. 81.

[3] Ibid., p. 260.

[4] Philadelphia North American and United States Gazette, Nov. 8, 1861.

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