A deeply moving and never-before-seen archive documents the lives of a North Carolina family during the war’s final, harrowing year and includes the actual bullet that killed one of their own at Fort Fisher in 1865. The information contained in this archive will be new to scholarship and helps us better understand how the laypeople of the South absorbed their impending loss of cause and life.
By the time the Civil War ended in April of 1865, just about every family in the United States, regardless of geography, had a personal connection to the war; sons lost, sons returned. This then became part of each family’s history, part of the stories of bravery and heroism handed down to the next generation. In some cases, these stories are supplemented by relics, letters, or diaries kept as family heirlooms over decades and centuries. We are honored when families share these with us.
The Bakers of North Carolina preserved an archive of Civil War letters and diaries from six members of the family. Included are unpublished accounts of the Battles of Fort Fisher, the trenches of Petersburg, Virginia, and the fighting around Kinston, North Carolina. Remarkably, the collection also contains the remnant of a bullet, described by John Baker as the “slug that killed my brother, J.J. Baker, Jr.”
Acquired from descendants and never before offered for sale, this archive bears witness to the collapse of the Confederacy through the eyes of the weary young men on the front line and those of the hopeful young girls at home.
The Baker Family
Jesse J. Baker, Jr. was the youngest son and namesake of the Baker family patriarch. The family resided in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Jesse was stationed at Fort Caswell, and the twelve letters of his in this collection reveal the dire conditions there and the devastating battles at Fort Fisher. Jesse survived General Ulysses S. Grant’s first attack in late December, 1864, after which he wrote home to his mother:
“The enemy commenced to shell the fort and kept up a continual fire all day long and about dark their infantry made its appearance but we drove them back. That night it rained all night and I was completely broken down.”
In the aftermath of the second battle of Fort Fisher in early 1865, Jesse was shot and killed while loading a cannon.
Jesse’s older brother, John B. Baker, had been stationed outside Petersburg, Virginia, but had been captured and kept at Hart Island in New York City. Ten letters of his from 1864-65 survive in this archive. Upon hearing the news of his brother’s death, he wrote to his mother:
“I hope we may all be better prepared to meet that end to which we are so fast approaching. The harsh roar of cannon and the sharp crack of rifles tell us that a great many more mothers and friends will have to give up their sons and friends for a sacrifice to their country.”
John returned home in 1865, and it was he who labeled and preserved the bullet that killed his brother.
During this torturous final year of the war, Mattie Baker, Jesse and John’s sister, remained at home in North Carolina. She wasn’t unaffected by the war, however. Her diary offers up examples of patriotic poetry and songs, as she tried to keep the faith, as well as bittersweet notes about soldiers she knew and their locations: “All these belong to the Green County Compay. They left here Saturday night the 20th for Virginia. I am very sad this evening. I wish I could see the one I love. I have not seen him in five weeks.” Her laments lead a reader to wonder whether Mattie lost a beau in addition to a brother.
The archive is filled out by two dozen letters and a journal written by Baker cousins, one of whom was stationed at Kinston during this time period. Their exchange includes news of crops and events at home and the fighting on the field. One writes to another, “They say slavery is going up but I don’t know what that means.”
Saved and preserved by generations of the Baker family, the archive stands out for its deeply personal nature, showing the effects of the defeat on a family on the losing side of the conflict. These men and women imparted what was on their minds as they came to grips with their private losses against the backdrop of a national reckoning. We find that the perspectives they share transcend familial and geographic borders and have much to offer to the scholarship of the war.
For more information, click to read a full description of the archive with excerpts from the letters and journals.