NPR logo Memorial Day Flashback: Congress' Sole Member Who Died In Battle

Memorial Day Flashback: Congress' Sole Member Who Died In Battle

Sen. Edward Baker of Oregon. hide caption

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Not far from Washington, D.C., just up the Potomac River, is the site of a little known Civil War engagement, the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Va.

Fought on Oct. 21, 1861, it's worth remembering on Memorial Day not just because it is the first and only time a sitting member of Congress was killed in battle but because of the characteristic Washington fingerpointing it inspired.

Sen. Edward Dickinson Baker, an Oregon Republican and dear friend of President Abraham Lincoln (who named a son for him), died in the battle that was among the early series of calamitous Union setbacks at the hands of Confederate forces that helped dash northern hopes the war would end quickly in a Union triumph.

At the start of the war, Baker helped raise a regiment of soldiers from Pennsylvania which he designated as a California unit because Dickinson, from the west and for political reasons, wanted California to be represented in the Union military effort. This was despite the fact that he himself represented Oregon. That was only one aspect of the strangeness surrounding Ball's Bluff.

Here's another. A Union unit that had preceded Baker across the Potomac from the Maryland to the Virginia side to conduct reconnaissance mistook some trees in the twilight for enemy tents. If they hadn't done that, they likely wouldn't have stayed around long enough to get into a skirmish the following morning with a Confederate unit.

Once the fighting started on Oct. 21, Baker ordered his unit of nearly 2,000 men across the Potomac to join in. He was more politician than warfighter, however, and made several mistakes that turned out to be fatal for himself and many of his men.

He didn't have anything close to enough boats or rafts to get his men to the fighting or away from it quickly if need be.

Once they crossed, he didn't get them far enough away from the steep bank and the river, violating a battlefield rule going back to the ancients that an army should never fight with a body of water immediately to its rear, if possible.

And he arrayed his men in an open field, one row behind another, so that many of his men didn't have a clear view of the enemy who, unfortunately for Baker and his men, could clearly target them.

Baker was shot and killed early.

This is how the Senate website describes what happened:

Lightly schooled in military tactics, Baker gamely led his 1,700-member brigade across the Potomac River 40 miles north of the capital, up the steep ridge known as Ball's Bluff, and into the range of waiting enemy guns. He died quickly—too soon to witness the stampede of his troops back over the 70-foot cliffs to the rock-studded river below. Nearly 1,000 were killed, wounded, or captured. This disaster led directly to the creation of the toughest congressional investigating committee in history—the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Eighty years later, during the early months of World War II, members of Congress began turning up in combat zones with their reserve units. Despite the appeal of having senators saluting generals, the War Department banned the active duty service of all members, preserving the dubious distinction of Senator Edward Dickinson Baker.

The website of the Civil War Trust also has a thoroughly informative page on the Battle of Ball's Bluff.

Because there had been other battlefield disasters; one of its own had been killed, and bodies of Union soldiers killed in the engagement — some by enemy weapons, some by falling and some by drowning — kept floating down the river past Washington Congress, through its inquiry, sought someone to blame for Ball's Bluff.

That became Union Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone, Baker's commander, who after becoming Congress' whipping boy for the defeat wound up imprisoned for a while before his military career was rehabilitated.

Meanwhile, in 1995 the National Archives journal, Prologue, published an article that captured some of the small human pathos arising from the battle.

Titled "A Widow's Plea — And an Inventory," it reprints a letter from the widow of a union officer who died in the battle to the government in which she seeks the remainder of her husband's pay. as well as an inventory of the personal effects he left behind at camp. It speaks for itself of the many tragedies of war.