August 24, 2013

Baker: heard the booming cannon roar

Throughout the Civil War, Obadiah Ethelbert Baker kept a journal which he addressed to his wife and mailed to her throughout his tenure with the Iowa Cavalry Volunteers. She, in turn, kept her own journal which she exchanged with him. Interspersed with updates about the War, Baker included poems — both of love and describing his battle experiences as a common soldier. He was hospitalized in St. Louis, Missouri (possibly at the Jefferson Barracks, pictured here in 1899) when he wrote his poem "My Army Birth" on August 24, 1863, which describes his motivations for enlistment:

I left my home in the distant north,
   My much loved prairie home,
To help to fight my country's foes,
   Not for a love to roam.

But because a rebel horde had scorned,
   The banner of the free,
That bright and shining starry flag,
   Emblem of liberty.

I tired to be content at home,
   But no, I could not stay,
While rebel feet were tramping o'er
   The flag that sheltered me.

The flag that waved o'er grandsire's head,
   That bore him through the strife,
 I could not see dishonored now,
   Though I left a widowed wife.

And so I left one April day,
   And soon was in the strife,
Soon heard the booming cannon roar,
   Soon heard the drum and fife.

Baker had a long tenure during the Civil War. His enlistment began in September 1861 and he was not honorably discharged until April 1865. His journal entries document various battles, his experiences in Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, and Tennessee, expressing a range of emotions including sympathy and grief for his fallen enemies after the carnage of battle. After the war, he became a teacher in Mississippi and Iowa and spent his final years in California. He died in 1923 and his papers, including his journals and poems, are now at the Huntington Library in that state.

*Information for this post, including the text of the poem, is from "Words for the Hour": A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry  (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), edited by Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller. I highly recommend this incredible compilation of both well-known and lesser-known works from this contentious and emotional period in American history.

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