In a quiet corner of North Kingstown’s Elm Grove Cemetery is the Baker family plot. Among those buried under a simple, moss-encrusted marker is Charles Cahoon Baker, who is said to be the first North Kingstown resident to die in battle during the Civil War. Charley was killed in the Battle of New Bern(e), North Carolina as a member of Company H, 4th Rhode Island Infantry Regiment on the cold, damp morning of March 14, 1862. While he was not the first Rhode Islander to die in the war, his story is eminently representative of the horror of battle and the sadness of its aftermath.
Charley Baker was born in Wickford in 1845, the third of nine children of David Sherman Baker and Mary Cahoon Waite Baker. He grew up in the family homestead at 50 Pleasant Street (the house, still standing, was built in 1785 by Benjamin Lawton Packer and sold to Charley’s grandfather in the 1830’s). When Charley’s mother and father started growing their large family, the house quickly was expanded and took on its present appearance around the time of the Civil War). The Bakers were prominent local residents and active members of the First Baptist Church. A family of strong and patriotic principles, no one was surprised when Charley, who had just turned 17, was among those young men who rushed to Providence to volunteer as a private in the Grand Army of the Republic in September of 1861. Charley and his fellow volunteers left Rhode Island for Washington, DC on October 2. After training, they were attached to the Army of the Potomac and in early January of 1862, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, they were sent to North Carolina, seeing service at the Battle of Roanoke Island before being sent on to New Bern.
Let’s go back to that cold dark morning on the last day of young Charley’s life. He woke from a likely fitful sleep after having landed with his comrades and marching through rain and mud to a campsite outside the Confederate held Fort Thompson outside the city of New Bern. Shortly after dawn, gunfire broke out. Colonel Isaac Rodman, another well-known Rhode Island name, ordered his 4th Regiment, including Charley’s Company H, into a breech in the Rebel lines.
Corporal George Allen, in a privately published 1887 book “Forty-six Months with the Fourth Rhode Island Volunteers”, recounts the action that took young Charley’s life on the morning of March 14. Union troops had launched an unsuccessful assault on Fort Thompson. Colonel Rodman, seeing the troops fall back, took it on himself to rally the 4th Rhode Island to charge again. Allen describes the action:
Our colonel immediately decided to advance the regiment without orders, taking the responsibility of the movement on his own shoulders; and dispatching an aide to General Parke to inform him of what he was about to do, gave the order, ‘Fourth Rhode Island fall in’. The boys were ready for the work. Moving by the right flank for a short distance to a slight rise of ground, and then right by files into line, they advanced at a quick step on the rebel line. Shot and shell, grape and minie-balls greeted their approach, and the men began to drop before the murderous fire; yet never swerving from their onward course, they steadily advanced, loading and firing as fast as possible, till within a hundred yards of the works, when with a cheer, they charged home, and planting their colors on the ramparts, swarmed over the breast-works. A short, fierce struggle, and the first was ours.
Sadly, Charley Baker was not among those who made it to the fort. As he ran through the breech in the line, his last experience was likely a blinding flash and his war was over. There, Charley became the first of many Rhode Islanders to die in the battle. Union losses were 90 killed, 380 wounded and 1 missing. Confederate losses: 64 killed, 101 wounded, 413 captured or missing.
Charley’s body was brought back to Rhode Island six weeks after the battle and on April 26th, many in the town of Wickford gathered at the First Baptist Church to mourn with the Baker family and also the Church family. Another North Kingstown man, Sgt. George H. Church, had died during the Battle of New Berne and his body was returned for burial along with that of Private Baker. The funeral service for the two men was described as the largest of its kind in the town’s memory. The procession from the church to the cemetery was nearly a mile in length. The caskets were carried on carriages from the Narragansett Engine Company, of which both men had been volunteer members. The two were laid to rest in their respective family burial sites.
In her book, “Wickford Memories”, author Anita S. Hinkley writes:
Charles Baker was one of my father’s older brothers and he was the first casualty of the Civil War from Rhode Island. Every Decoration Day we go to the (Elm Grove) Cemetery and put flowers on his grave. My grandmother never went. She and her only daughter, Abby, sat at home and look at Charlie’s few possessions and grieved as only women can who have lost their best.
One hundred and fifty two years ago in March of 1863, a young man, one of so many from our state to die in the Civil War, gave his life in a brief and violent moment in the honorable service of his country. The motto of the Varnum Continentals, “To Preserve Patriotism”, stands in his memory and for all who have gallantly served out nation through the years.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin