Nelson Baker is a name that is universally recognized throughout Western New York. Now that he is called “venerable” by the Catholic Church in recognition of his path to sainthood, knowledge of this holy man has widened. Even before his death in 1936, people had a strong connection with Father Baker. Well-known are the stories of his devotion to orphans, the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden. The institutions that this “apostle of charity” founded are vibrant and integral in service to the community to this very day. His devotion to the Blessed Mother and his determination to honor her with a shrine is known worldwide, as is his service and devotion to others. It is his legacy.
Perhaps less well-known and another example of service attributed to Baker is his patriotism and military service. Prior to his ordination as a priest, Baker enlisted at the age of 21 during the Civil War. He joined the 74th New York Militia Regiment, Company A (part of the New York National Guard) as an infantryman – not as a drummer boy, as some have alleged – most likely in 1862. The regiment had been organized in Buffalo in 1854. In response to the request of U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to New York Gov. Horatio Seymour for 20,000 new troops, the 74th was called to active duty in June 1863, the third summer of the war.
Confederate States Gen. Robert E. Lee had raised apprehensions in the North by moving his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. His target appeared to be Harrisburg, the state capital and a transportation hub. The strategy of Lee’s second invasion of the North was to relieve pressure on Virginia, where most of the fighting had been so far, and in addition to win a significant victory on Northern soil. Such a victory would, Lee hoped, lead to official recognition of the Confederate States by several European nations, and also leave Washington, D.C., open to attack. (Lee’s first invasion of the North at Antietam Creek, Md., was blunted by Union forces, and ended with a Confederate withdrawal to Virginia.) As Lee’s army advanced, Union forces rushed to meet the challenge. The two armies clashed at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1, 1863, precipitating the largest and bloodiest battle ever on American soil.
Unfortunately, Private Baker kept no diary that we know of until 1866. However, the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, officer reports from the 74th Regiment and material from the Father Baker Archives provide a clear picture of where he went and what he saw. Departing Buffalo on June 19, the 74th arrived in Harrisburg, Pa., the next afternoon. After being supplied, the troops were deployed to Mount Union, Pa., (some 80 miles from Harrisburg) on June 27, to be placed on picket duty protecting the strategic Pennsylvania Railroad right of way through the mountains, as well as two significant railroad bridges and the locks of the Pennsylvania Canal. It was “all quiet” at Mount Union until July 3. As America’s bloodiest battle raged at Gettysburg to the south, 500 Rebel cavalry from Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden’s brigade appeared at the Mill Creek railroad bridge apparently with intent to destroy it. After reconnoitering, the outnumbered Rebels withdrew without attacking the well-defended bridge. On July 5, as Lee’s army withdrew into Virginia and Maryland, Baker’s regiment joined others in pursuit. Much to the dismay of President Abraham Lincoln, Lee got away again, but official reports show that the 74th exchanged fire with retreating Rebels at Clear Springs, Md., on July 10. No casualties were reported.
The Gettysburg Campaign had ended, but before Baker and his fellow soldiers could return to Buffalo, the 74th and other units were ordered to report “with all haste to New York City.” Serious, destructive and bloody riots had broken out on July 13. The New York Draft Riots had a number of complex social and economic causes that simmered below the surface, but when a new Federal Conscription Act allowed the procuring of substitutes (usually for $300) for those drafted, anger and frustration exploded among working-class New Yorkers, many of whom were ethnic Irish. “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” became an epithet. It took days to suppress the disturbances. The death toll and property destruction were shocking. Black New Yorkers seemed to be a particular target of the rioters.
The 74th arrived on July 17 to assist in “mop up” and stabilizing efforts as the riots waned. Without leaving too much to speculation, it is clear that Baker and his comrades were witnesses to the horrors of this incident. This, in addition to a nerve-wracking stint on the periphery of the clash at Gettysburg. Fortunately, the 74th suffered no casualties. According to a regimental history, only one soldier died (of disease) during active duty. The regiment returned to Buffalo on July 24. Yet Baker’s Civil War duty was not over. On Nov. 16, 1863, the 74th was reactivated to protect Buffalo from an impending Confederate invasion. It seems that Stanton had received intelligence that Buffalo was to be destroyed in the attack. The invasion never materialized, however, and Baker’s call to service had ended.
Baker was among many thousands of individuals who answered the call of their nation to serve. It reveals a strength of character and bravery, for no one who serves in the “crucible of war” can predict if he will return. No one who has ever written or spoken of being in war has described it as enjoyable. It does leave an impression. In fact, Baker rarely, if ever, spoke of his military experiences. He was an infantryman in Company A. No doubt he experienced the fear of engagement and boredom of camp life (incidentally, he may have contracted a severe skin disease, erysipelas, from unsanitary camp conditions). It became an element of his life experience.
Patriotism and service to country is one component in the character of the humble Buffalonian of Irish and German descent. Coupled with his intense spiritual devotion and concern for others, this former soldier became known as “The Apostle of Charity.” He may someday be known as Saint Nelson Baker.
Timothy Ellis is a retired history teacher from Hamburg.