Skip to main content

Full text of "Baker at Ball's Bluff : an address, Ball's Bluff, on the Potomac, October 21st, 1911"

See other formats

0° .'^'l' % 

• • * 4 > 

:. '-n^o^ o 


■^ - - - -^ A> 

^^-V »• 
,* ^"^ '5^ -. 

'■ '■ '- .*^^ 



An Address 




October 21st, 1911 










Member of Congress from PennsyWanla 

Reunion of Survivors of the Seventy-first Pennsylvania (California) 

Regiment, G. A. R., and Confederate Veterans, at Balls Bluff, 

Potomac River, Virginia, on the Fiftieth Anniversary 

of the Battle, October 21, 1911. 

V^e;rans : — Baker's death at Balls Bluff was one of the severest 
shocks sustained by the overburdened Lincoln. The two men had 
been associates in Congress from Illmois, and had stood side by 
side in the argument against dis-union. Baker's return to Wash- 
ington as a United States Senator from Oregon was reassuring to 
the President. He sought and received a Colonel's commission, 
although he was offered appointment: as a Major-General. The 
higher rank he never accepted, although the tender of it was 
regarded as the President's estimate of his dignity and capabilities. 


McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac. He 
was the only officer holding the rank of Major-General at that 
time, and he was moving with great deliberation, undoubtedly over- 
estimating the strength of the enemy on the other side of the river. 
The disaster at Bull Run had alarmed and angered the Nation and 
had caused the President the greatest solicitude. There were 

moments when, to all intents and purposes, he was upon his knees 
at the McClellan headquarters or in the McClellan home, begging 
for action. 

What Baker wanted was what Lincoln wanted. In his dramatj^j 
debate with Breckenridge, accoutred as he was in the uniform of, 
Colonel, he clearly indicated his belief that the Rebellion should b. 
put down, and that there must be no temporizing. He went fortli 
with his regiment, which he had recruited largely in Philadelphia 
subject, of course, to the orders of his commanding officers. 


After the lapse of fifty years there is still some mist enshrouding 
the motives and plans of the commanders who directed the move- 
ment which, so unhappily, resulted in Baker's death. That Mc- 
Clellan was endeavoring to force an opening upon the Virginia side 
of the Potomac is evident. That the Division Commander, Stone, 
directed the movement at Balls Blufif, and gave the orders to Baker, 
is a matter of official record. That brave men from Massachusetts, 
New York and Pennsylvania, who had not long been trained in the 
art of war, were suddenly ordered across the river at Harrison's 
Island, above Edward's Ferry, and that they spent most of the 
night in getting over, and much of the succeeding day of October 
2ist in struggling like rats in a trap on the top of Balls Bluff 
and the approaches thereto, is a reasonable statement of the facts. 
The heroic work of portions of the Massachusetts regiments before 
the arrival of Colonel Baker, and the re-alignment of forces after 
his appearance on the scene, and their gallant defense until the 
close of the day, demonstrated that the new recruits could fight, and 
that they were determined, if possible, to wipe out the humiliation 
of Bull Run. Even Baker's death in the afternoon, although it 
greatly disorganized the men, did not prevent their fighting on. 
They were hopeful, as he was, that reinforcements would come. 


The miserable transportation facilities for getting the men back 
and forth over the Potomac River was perhaps the weakest spot 
in the campaign. They consisted only of an accidentally discovered 
flat boat and a few skiffs, and delayed the arrival of a portion of 
Baker's command until too late to be of assistance to the hard- 


pressed fighters on the Bluff; they were also utterly inadequate 
as a means of retreat. But it was held out to the commanders 
\nd the men that the four thousand troops at Edward's Ferry, a 
3W miles away, would come to their rescue, and so the shattered 
3rces kept on fighting. But disappointment followed defeat, and 
dt nightfall the worn-out remnant of Baker's men found themselves 
at the foot of the Bluff, huddled along the hostile banks of the 
Potomac, with no alternative but surrender, or death. A few 
managed to escape by swimming the turbid river under cover of 
the night, but many who made the attempt were shot in the water. 


It was a pitiable spectacle, and while it added greatly to Lincoln's 
anguish, it stirred the Nation to a greater realization of its danger. 
It checked the assurance and jealousy of some of the leaders in 
Congress and the Army, and quickened the activities of all the sup- 
porters of the Union. It taught the self-satisfied Northener that 
the Southern man was brave and determined, and, while a mere 
incident in the bloody tram of hostilities that followed through the 
four long years of strife, served to arouse the people to such a 
frenzy of excitement as had only been witnessed after the disaster at 
Bull Run. 


It is said of nations that they are ungrateful, and yet in many 
ways the Government of the United States has belied the assertion. 
No other nation in the world has been more generous to those who 
bore arms in its defense. One-sixth of all the revenues of the 
Government are this day devoted to the care and the maintenance 
of the veterans who were loyal in the service of their country. We 
have reared monuments to celebrate the achievements of our chief- 
tains upon land and sea, and we have signalized the exploits of the 
private soldier in bronze and marble; but, much as we have done 
for the heroic living and the martyred dead, we have here and 
there slipped a cog and overlooked the bravest of the brave. And, 
pray, who more brave than they who, yielding up their homes and 
opportunities, and obediently marching into the very jaws of death 
upon Balls Bluff, laid down their lives on October 21. 1861 ! They 
were true soldiers, for, without asking the reason why they followed 
their commanders and plunged into the maelstrom of death, with 


no hope of glory or reward in this life, and without even the assur- 
ance that their graves would be marked.* 


Hemmed in on the brow of the Bluflf, with Confederate forces 
occupying the surrounding woodland and gradually closing in upon 
him, Baker ordered his men to lie down, since, standing, they were 
only targets for the sharpshooters in the trees. 

"Don't expose yourself," said he to a soldier who was standing 
erect, loading and firmg. 

"Colonel, you expose yourself, why shouldn't I?" 

But the answer of the Commander indicated that, although he 
knew the importance of keeping his men under cover and of safe- 
guarding them until reinforcements came, he could not himself 
"lie down in the face of the enemy." Thus he became the target 
of the marksmen from whom he strove to shield his men. Several 
bullets struck him as he fell. 


There is no monument to Baker at Balls Bluflf. The bones of 
many heroes who died with him, slumber there m obscurity. 
A Nation which has been so generous in other respects should not 
longer permit this palpable injustice to continue. Balls Bluff in the 
Civil War had all the startling significance of the first shot upon 
Sumter. It was like the blowing up of the Maine in our more 
recent conflict with Spain. It involved the Nation in a controversy 
which stirred Congress to action. It carried down with it the life 
of one of the Nation's greatest orators and statesmen, a firm and 
devoted follower of the immortal Lincoln, and one of his chief allies 
in Congress and the Army. His life had been devoted to such 
high and lofty and statesmanlike purposes that his tragic death had 
all the effect of a national catastrophe. The sacred soil upon which 
Baker fell, and around which the gallant Philadelphians and their 

* Balls Bluff today is a bit of rugged country bordering the Potomac and overlooKing 
a valley of much scenic beauty. It is the end of a three miles drive fr')m the old town 
of Leesburg. The road cuts through rolling farm land which is divided up into large 
Virginia estates. The Bluff is thickly wooded and slopes abruptly to the rivei bank. 
On the clearing at the top of the Bluff, the United States Government has located a 
small cemetery within the stone walls of which have been 'gathered toi^ether the bodies 
of some of those who were killed October 21, 1861. Of all those remaining unclaimed 
(* total of 25) only one, James Allen, of a Massachusetts regirnent, was identified. 
The others are numbered amongst the unknown. There is a flagstaff in the center of the 
plot, and this, save a small granite marker in memory of a Confederate soldier, about 100 
feet from the cemetery, is all that marks the battle ground — a battle ground upon which 
tlie casualties, dead, wounded and missing, reached nearly 1,200. — J. H. M., October 21, 

comrades of Massachusetts and New York poured out their life's 
blood in the last stand against the charging troops of Virginia and 
Mississippi, should be marked, and that speedily, as a tribute to the 
dead and a signal to the living.f 


But, veterans, we have passed beyond the borderland of strife. 
The fierce yell of the Confederate soldiers, breaking through the 
woodland with fixed bayonets or smoking musketry, is no longer 
to be seen or heard. The stubborn resistance of the invading but 
unsupported Union men, driven back to defeat and surrender at Balls 
Bluff, is interesting to the newer generation only as a matter of his- 
tory, but to you, survivors of the thrilling scenes of half a century 
ago, they involved the sacrifice of human life and blood, and shaped 
a Nation's destiny! You understand what all this meant, you men 
who wore the Blue, and you who wore the Gray; you understand 
as we do not ! And in this age of progress, made possible by 
your struggles and the gallantry of those who here laid down their 
lives with Baker, we may well indulge the hope that this and future 
generations shall continue to reverence and respect and, if need 
be fight for, the institutions of our common country. We have 
much to do that has not yet been done. The turning of the swords 
of '6i into the plowshares of today is not the sum of all our hopes 
and expectations. Under a single flag our country is expanding 
and our wealth increasing, but we have been wasteful ; we have 
not more than scratched the surface of our resources. The love 
of ease and the lure of gold have followed in the wake of our 

t About 100 feet from the Balls Bluff Cemetery (it is said to be the smallest of all 
the National Cemeteries) at the edge of the Bluff slope, a bushelfui of loose stones 
hold up a wretched worm-eaten fence rail, to mark the spot where Baker fell. It is the 
only monument to one of the Nation's greatest orators and statesmen. Colonel Baker 
was an by birth, but his Americanism was intense. From a mill-boy in 
Philadelphia, he had risen to be a lawyer, and colleague in Congress of Lincoln of 
Illinois. As a speaker he had thrilled great audiences East and West. In California 
he was famous as an advocate, and Oregon gladly "^ent him to the United States Seuate, 
He had served with distinction in the Mexican War and though risen to the proud post 
of a United States Senator, he promptly stepped from the rostrum to the field when he 
felt that the country needed his services there. 

Baker's strength in the Senate was exceptional. His reply to Breckenrid'ge as his 
regiment waited in camp under the very shadow of the capital, was dramatic in the 
extreme. His power over his men was magnetic. His presence was impcsing and his 
example was inspiring. The men whom he called his "boys," loved him They followed 
him cheerfully when he scaled the heights at Balls Bluff, and they faltered only when 
he fell. There was so much of gentleness and nobility in his charactei, that it would 
seem now, after the swing of fifty years, that some monument more lasting than an 
unhewn stick should adorn the ground where ebbed and closed the life of one whose 
patriotism and bravery earned him a place amongst the nation's heroes. — J. H. M., 
October 21, 191 1. 

prosperity, like the stealthy camp follower behind the battling armies. 
Indeed we have mighty problems yet to be determined. 

the; duty of bh;ing prepared. 

We are dealing with a generation which knows little of the 
struggles and privations of the men who fought on the one side 
for the maintenance of the Union, and on the other for what they 
believed to be the rights of the separate States. In our great onward 
march of civilization, fifty years remote from the great war in 
which you participated, we cannot forget that he is best assured 
of peace who is best prepared for war. We seek no war ; we pray 
'for peace; and yet from out the clear, unclouded sky the thunder- 
bolts of war are hurled — when, where, we cannot tell. We are 
dependent today upon a. standing army which is but a corporal's 
guard compared with the standing armies of European or even of 
Asiatic countries. Our navy is growing stronger, but the surprise 
which Italy has just given the Sultan carries a warning to us that 
we must maintain. our ability to defend upon the high seas. 


And as we rear our monuments to the heroic dead, and seek 
by their example to inspire the living, insisting upon peace as we 
maintain a readiness for war, let us seek, by a closer interest in 
the real welfare of our country, to have men know and firmly believe 
in its worth and glory. Our land is rich and full of opportunity. 
Our soil is fertile and capable of cultivation. We have millions of 
acres of untilled land that need but the hand of man to give it value 
and utility. We must depend upon the soil and the products of the 
soil for our national strength. If we abandon the plowshare and 
the sturdy occupations which create the wealth of our country, the 
maintenance of an Army or a Navy will indeed be a burden. The 
spirit of the soldier is the spirit of sacrifice. He entered the great 
four years' struggle not for wealth, but to establish the reign of 
peace and progress which followed the war. 


The spirit of '76 united the Colonies and taught us the lessons 
of liberty and independence. It was the spirit of '61 that gave us 
the Union and taught us the lessons of peace and industry. What 


we have gained through the sheddiug of blood and the loss of life 
and happiness, should not be lost to the succeeding generations. As 
we should be prepared on land or sea for the foreign thunderbolt 
which we trust, will ne'er be hurled against our land, it is likewise 
prudent that we should fortify ourselves against that more insidious 
conflict, the modern spirit of greed and selfishness which tends to 
undermine and sap the Nation's strength. We need true men to 
make the Nation strong. 


Rear, then, your monuments, ye veterans of the great civil 
conflict ;, rear them high upon mountain top and in valley ; memor- 
ialize the personal sacrifice and the unselfish devotion of your com- 
rades who laid down their lives in noxious swamps and rocky 
fastnesses. Rear them to' the memory of brave and generous souls 
whose patriotism far excelled the love of gold. They died that the 
union of States might be 'maintained, and that under that union 
succeeding generations should ^enjoy the blessings of peace, of 
justice and of equaLopportunity. This is the heritage of your valor, 
as it is our lesson for the day. ' * 



' , O > • 1 

IP,* ^^ -^ %^|§^* .^^ % %^ 

j> . '^ • • * ^ cr «. " • -, *^ 

^^^\^ W'^^^^'j" \^'^^^^'a' W'^f.ryj' 



:vr* .v'^^ 



,/ ^^ '-^P^* -^^ ^^ -.* 
iC> ^ ♦TXT* A 

" O 4-^* 

^ ^ 

5 •i:^:^'* > 

^ **-»' .V 

"".'^'•^o' v^^'y %-^-^'\°' V'T 


V. * o « o ' O,^ 

«» " .-?»* 

^ o.. 


^'-^^^ .