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Senator Killed in Battle

October 21, 1861

Battle of Ball's Bluff

He was a skilled lawyer, a renowned orator, and a member of the president's inner circle. He was also the only United States senator ever to die in a military engagement.

By the 1830s, Edward Dickinson Baker had become one of Illinois's most prominent lawyers and a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. In 1844 he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, defeating Lincoln for the Whig Party nomination. At the start of the Mexican War in 1846, Representative Baker raised a regiment of troops and led them to the front. To boost congressional support for the unpopular war, he returned to the House Chamber in full uniform, lobbied his colleagues, resigned his seat, and rejoined his troops. After the war, he returned to another Illinois congressional district and, although a resident of that district for only three weeks, easily won a House seat. By 1852 he had left Congress to take up a lucrative law practice in San Francisco. A highly regarded orator, he earned national fame with his eulogy in 1859 at the funeral of California's U.S. senator David Broderick, who had been killed in a duel with a former chief justice of that state.

By 1860, Baker had moved to Oregon and won a seat in the U.S. Senate. When the Civil War began, he again raised a militia unit and appeared before his legislative colleagues in full uniform. On October 21, 1861, with Congress out of session and Confederate forces closing in on Washington, Senator-Colonel Baker went off to war.

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 one of the first congressional investigating committees 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.

Reference Items:

Blair, Harry, and Rebecca Tarshis. Colonel Edward D. Baker: Lincoln’s Constant Ally. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1960.

Holien, Kim Bernard. The Battle of Ball's Bluff. Orange, Va.: Moss Publications, 1985.

Tap, Bruce. Over Lincoln's Shoulder: The Committee on the Conduct of the War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.