Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stars, Falling and Rising

Wherein an extinguished political career helps launch a newspaper's
Ad for Baker's Philadelphia funeral march,
November 7, 1861

The newspaper of record in Washington City in 1861 was the Evening Star, sometimes called the Washington Star outside of the city, a name it wouldn't take officially until 1970s and would keep until it closed in 1981. Its presses and building (and the contracts of many of its staff, including Mary McGrory, Howard Kurtz, Fred Hiatt, and Jonathan Yardley, as well as rights to those soap comics that still run) were purchased by the Washington Post. The building at the corner of 11th and Pennsylvania now houses Fogo de Chao, among other tenants, but the paper's original 1861 building stood across Pennsylvania Avenue. The paper was small and new then, it had only been in operation for ten years, but the boom in population in Civil War Washington would build the paper, and the evolving, sensational news surrounding Ball's Bluff and the death of sitting U.S. Senator Edward Baker would be part of what caused the paper's circulation to explode.

On October 23, the paper reprinted George McClellan's General Orders No. 31 commemorating Baker, and added its own report, which would subsequently be forwarded by newspapermen around the country:
The remains of the late gallant Col. E.B. Baker have not yet reached Washington.  They are to be taken to the residence of Major J.W. Webb, at the corner of Fourteenth and H streets--No. 363.  We learn incidentally that his body was pierced with six balls, either of which would probably have been fatal; thus showing that his person on the field was a shining mark indeed. On leaving his quarters at his friend, Major Webb's for the field of his death, he remarked to that gentleman that he expected to be in action in less than forty-eight hours, and felt that he should lose his life; closing the conversation with a request that Major W. should send for his body if his presentment proved true.

Privately, though, McClellan was already treating Baker differently. The night of October 25, after Baker's funeral and temporary interment in a vault at Congressional Cemetery, McClellan wrote to his wife that the affair at Ball's Bluff was "entirely unauthorized by me & I am in no manner responsible for it." The man who was could not speak up in his own defense:
The man directly to blame for the affair was Col Baker who was killed--he was in command, disregarded entirely the instructions he had received from Stone, & violated all military rules & precautions. Instead of meeting the enemy with double their force & a good ferry behind him, he was outnumbered three to one, & had no means of retreat.
At least initially, the press seemed to buy his version. On October 26, the New York Times editorialized: "It seems probable, however, from the statement that the advance was not made in pursuance of Gen. McClellan's orders, that it had no essential connection with any general movement of the army."

McClellan complaining to his wife about the incompetence of subordinate officers wasn't at all unusual (assuming those subordinates had been forced upon him by politics). In the letter of October 25 he also criticizes Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks: "I found things in great confusion when I arrived there--Genl Banks having assumed command & having done nothing. In a very short time order and confidence were restored." However, McClellan's assessment of Baker as a poor commander had been shared by the Star, at least before Baker's death. On July 29, a few days after Baker's 1st California Regiment had first arrived in Washington to sure up defenses of the city following Bull Run, it had published a tougher critique of the Senator-turned-colonel, based on their opinion of his men:
There can be little doubt that such a thing as proper subordination in the regiment is a thing almost unknown. Col. Baker is a candidate for a brigadier generalship.  While we entertain the kindest feelings for that gentleman, it is our plain duty thus to call the attention of the President to the alleged condition of his regiment, which, if it be true, embraces positive proof that he may not be safely entrusted with a higher grade of military responsibility.  The insubordination of the men of course grows out of the failure of his officers to control them, and to set them proper examples, and their failure to control their men embraces at least prima facie evidence that their colonel fails to control them. Our army lost the battle of Bull Run mainly through its lack of discipline.  It is our duty to leave no effort untried to profit our cause by the disasters of that field.

A frequent poacher of pieces from the Star was New York's own fledgling newspaper, the New York Times. Far from the "Gray Lady" of today, the paper did have correspondents, but also relied on freelancers and news from other papers to fill its pages. On October 25, it ran with reports from freelancers to describe the funeral of Baker:
The funeral of Col. Baker, to-day, was very largely attended, and was in all respects an imposing display. The body of the deceased lay in state in the main parlors of Col. Webb's mansion. His uniform, as he wore it when he was killed, was examined by many curious spectators. The bullets had cut through the hat and coat, one ball going through his head just over the ear, and another going through the body from hip to hip. The body was escorted by the Pennsylvania Zouaves, and followed by the Thirty-sixth Pennsylvania and the Fourth Rhode Island, a detachment of his own regiment, his relatives, the President and his Cabinet, and a large number of distinguished citizens. Mrs. Lincoln also united with her husband in paying this last tribute of respect to an old and valued friend. 
The Times didn't note the prevalent, but hard to source today, story of Mrs. Lincoln's insistence of wearing a lilac dress and indignant response when she was told she should have been in black. Whether true or not, people were willing to believe it about the unpopular First Lady (the title, by the way, was used first to describe the female counterpart of the President for Mary Todd Lincoln's predecessor in the role, Harriet Lane, who happened to also be the only woman to bear that title not married to a President, since James Buchanan was the only lifelong bachelor in the White House). Baker's body would remain in Congressional Cemetery through the end of the week, until the embalming process could be started to prepare it for shipment to California.

The Times did republish a story that day about skirmishing on the Lower Potomac:
The Star of this evening has rumors that the rebel steamer Page has been seen crowded with men in the vicinity of Shipping Point, Evansport and Budd's Ferry, and that small boats have been crossing the river at those points, and that the Page ran near the Maryland shore, and fired shots at our troops stationed there. Several oyster boats that have arrived to-day were fired at, but not injured, by the rebel batteries. They report that the rebels are unloading the Fairfax, and have possession of the schooners Mary Virginia and Blossom.
The Confederates had at last opened the Evansport [Quantico] battery, and virtually shut-down water traffic to the capital city. The Star reported that almost all supplies and manpower was coming to Washington by the B&O Railroad, meaning it had to travel through the streets of suspect Baltimore, where Maj. General John Dix had all but openly declared martial law. Secretary of War Simon Cameron was contemplating seizing control of the railroad again, like he had done in the early days to ensure the capital was reinforced.

"How weary I am of all this business," McClellan complained to his wife in the letter of the 25th. "Case after case--blunder after blunder--trick upon trick--I am well nigh tired of the world, & were it not for you would be fully so."

But the world continued. Also on October 25, a small scouting party of cavalry and horse artillery (smaller, more mobile weapons) from the division of Brig. General "Baldy" Smith struck out for Vienna from Lewinsville, to scout the evacuated Confederate position. The following day, a similar scout from Brig. General Sam Heintzelman's division would proceed down the Virginia bank of the Potomac, while a similar mission from Brig. General Joe Hooker's division would do the same on the Maryland side of the Lower Potomac.

And McClellan would be to Fort Corcoran [Rosslyn] mid-morning, after an early morning meeting with a few members of the cabinet to complain about Winfield Scott (who was bothering McClellan with more accusations that he was meeting cabinet members behind his back to undermine him), to spend the day reviewing troops from the division of a hand-picked subordinate, Brig. General Fitz John Porter.

And in the Evening Star and newspapers around the country, the news about Ball's Bluff would continue to trickle out as for the first time a majority of the American public was literate during wartime, and hungry for news about what had happened in the seat of war. October 29's New York Times contained a colorful, and possibly fictitious interview with McClellan after the battle about what had happened. But it also contained something else New Yorkers waited for desperately since first hearing the news: a list of casualties from the 42nd New York Infantry Regiment.

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