Lt. Edward Baker and Rumors of Battle

by Alison Arnold

Lt. Edward Baker, USN

The Duxbury Rural and Historical Society has, over the past few months, been posting the journal entries of Duxbury resident, Edward Baker, written during his time as a Lieutenant in the Navy in the Civil War.  These journal entries are posted on his Facebook page almost to the day that he wrote them, 150 years ago.

There is something intriguing about reading the thoughts of a man who is part of the greatest war in American History.  He describes the mundane tasks of each day as well as his emotions about his beloved wife, especially after the loss of his 3 month old son.  But the most fascinating are his reports of the activity in preparation for battle and his editorials about what might, or might not happen and then to view it from a distance of 150 years knowing what we know today.

A few of the entries are just remarks of this nature:

Sunday, July 21st (1861).  During the forenoon, we heard incessantly heavy firing in the direction of Manassas for a space of three hours and we have heard it this afternoon but not so long continued as this morning. (What he was hearing was the first great battle of the war, the Battle of Bull Run)

Sept. 18th Wednesday.  Went to the Navy Department and modestly asked for a week’s leave of absence, to which I received a reply that we should soon have a big fight and after that, perhaps, I could get leave of absence. I told him that if such was the case, I didn’t wish for leave.  (Not sure why they wouldn’t give him leave, no big fight happened until end of October – Ball’s Bluff)

Sept. 29th Sunday.  – “The rebels last night evacuated Munsons Hill and this morning our troops marched over it and this afternoon heavy firing has been kept up beyond. I have been on the ship house this afternoon and can see our flag flying in a tree top, where I saw when last up there the rebel flag flying. Many troops of ours are moving now, some in the city and some on towards Bailey’s Cross Roads (what we northerners call Four Corners).”

A little history about what really happened here…After the loss suffered at the Bull Run by the Union Army in July 1861, the Union Army withdrew almost completely from Northern Virginia. The Confederate Army quickly occupied Munson’s, Upton’s and Mason’s Hills, from which they had commanding views of Bailey’s Crossroads (just south of Arlington, VA) and all the way into the federal capital which was only seven miles away.  Conversely, the residents of Washington could also see a massive Confederate flag flying high atop the hill. Those same residents were alarmed, when using telescopes, to see fearsome-looking Confederate cannons all across Munson’s Hill.

On the night of September 28, 1861, the Confederate Army silently withdrew from Falls Church and Munson’s, Mason’s and Upton’s Hills. The Union Army, to its extreme embarrassment, discovered the fearsome-looking cannons to be “Quaker guns” – logs painted black. Oops!

Sept. 30th Monday.

Came down river today. This evening I was shown the plan of a battle to be fought by us tomorrow. We are to attack at about 4 oclock Mathias Point. Nearly every ship on the river will be engaged and a land force will cooperate. The ship this evening is as still as death almost. All are quiet but not dejected. I hope twill be a bloodless engagement.

Oct, 4th Friday.

We did not go on our expedition on Monday night, but it was not our fault certainly. I don’t understand the reason but suppose our Govt. is determined not to fritter away its strength on this river so long as tis possible to avoid it. We expected to go next night and have ever since been looking for troops but we “don’t see them,” so I hardly think we shall, as we are detached from the Flotilla to go on other service, probably Hatteras first.

Oct. 29th Tuesday.

Got underweigh and stood to sea in company with about fifty other vessels of various kinds; Wabash 44 guns frigate, Steam sloop of war, Mohican, Seminole, many gun boats transports, Vanderbilt, Atlantic, Baltic, Augusta, and several others, (steam) Great Republic, Ocean Express, Golden Eagle, Zenas Coffin, sailing ships, and many steamers of different kinds, including two or three large ferry boats, &c, &c. truly as we are all lighted up this evening we look like an immense floating city. We hold communication by means of Costons signals as well at night  as by day with the flag ship.  . . .The Potomac River is now effectually closed, for the present at least, by the rebels from Mathias Pt. to Indian Head. Our forces crossed the river at Edwards Ferry, and the Massachusetts 16th [and 20th regiments suffered severely and Gen. Edw D Baker, Senator from Oregon was killed. Sad affair. Rather than surrender to an overwhelming force, they having the river behind them and no boats, threw their arms into the water and plunged into the swollen torrent, many being drowned, many shot in the water and many reaching camp in safety. They had fought desperately before they fled and nearly all their officers were killed…Where we are going is still a secret.

 Here he describes the terrible Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff. It was a small engagement but a tough blow to Union morale.

Baker did not know where his fleet was going, but we know today that they were headed to Port Royal, S.C. There they would face considerable danger as the port had been heavily fortified by the Confederacy.