The first to fall
His name was Richard.
He was young — just 23 years old when he died, that cold December day.
Unmarried. No descendants.
But he will not be forgotten.
Not as long as The Legal Genealogist lives. And, I fervently hope, not ever.
Because he died for the cause of American freedom.
Today begins the Memorial Day Weekend, a three-day holiday here in the United States, ending with a day set aside by this nation for the solemn remembrance of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in its defense.
More than one member of my family has done so in the many generations that my kin have been in America.
And the first that we know of was Richard Baker.
He was born 23 December 1753, most likely in Culpeper County, Virginia.1 As far as we’ve been able to determine, he was the 10th of 13 children born to Thomas and Dorothy (Davenport) Baker of Virginia.2
He was serving with his older brother, my fourth great grandfather David Baker, in the 3rd Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line when Washington crossed the Delaware just after dark on Christmas Day 1776. They were headed to what is known today as the Battle of Trenton.
One of Washington’s aides, believed to have been Col. John Fitzgerald, recorded the conditions faced by those troops that day:
It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.3
Washington wanted to attack just after daybreak but the crossing took longer than expected. By 6:00 A.M., the storm not abating, the conditions were miserable. One commander sent word that the men’s muskets would not fire due to being exposed to the elements. Washington sent word back to rely on the bayonet: “I am resolved to take Trenton.” 4
Washington and his troops succeeded in taking Trenton, and they did so at a small cost to his small force.
But part of that cost was paid by Richard.
There aren’t any details of his death. Just a poignant and quiet statement by his brother David many years later when David applied for a pension:
In a few days after we joined the main army the battle of White Plains was fought. We retreated & recrossed the Deleware The next Battle was at Trenton the 26th of Decemb – I was guarding the Baggage during the battle & had a Brother by the name of Richard killd in that action.5
Little is known or written about casualties among enlisted men at Trenton. Historian David McCullough in his masterful 1776 could document no American troops killed in the fighting, while noting that two men froze to death in the terrible winter conditions.6 Historian David Hackett Fischer contended that Washington’s losses were more, even larger than he knew.7
David Baker’s use of the phrase “killd in that action” rather than saying “he died” to describe his brother’s fate suggests a death in combat, and at least one relatively contemporary account recorded that “Our loss is only two killed and three wounded. Two of the latter are Captain (William) Washington and Lieutenant (James) Monroe, who rushed forward very bravely to seize the cannon.”8 Washington and Monroe were both officers in the 3rd Virginia. Monroe was a lieutenant in the Baker brothers’ own company. If the officers were rushing forward, it stands to reason the enlisted men were too, and a biography of Monroe says they were.9
We’ll never know for certain if that’s how and when Richard fell, but it well may be.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that he gave his life for the freedom that all of his kin — and all of us Americans — enjoy today.
And today, at the start of this Memorial Day Weekend, we express our thanks.
And to all who have given all that we might live free.
Image: Hugh Charles McBarron, Jr., “Battle of Trenton,” via Wikimedia Commons
- John Scott Davenport, “Five-Generations Identified from the Pamunkey Family Patriarch, Namely Davis Davenport of King William County,” PDF, p. 27, in The Pamunkey Davenport Papers: The Saga of the Virginia Davenports Who Had Their Beginnings in or near Pamunkey Neck, CD-ROM (Charles Town, W.Va.: Pamunkey Davenport Family Association, 2009). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It (1957; reprint, New York : Da Capo Press, 1987), 211. ↩
- Alan Axelrod, Profiles in Audacity: Great Decisions And How They Were Made (New York : Sterling Pub. Co., 2006), 218-219. See also Kevin Wright, “The Crossing and Battle at Trenton – 1776,” Bergen County Historical Society (http://www.bergencountyhistory.org : accessed 23 May 2014). ↩
- Affidavit of Soldier, 26 September 1832; Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, for service of David Baker (Corp., Capt. Thornton’s Co., 3rd Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 (http://www.Fold3.com : accessed 28 Apr 2012), David Baker file, p. 4. ↩
- David McCullough, 1776 (New York : Simon & Schuster, 2005), 281. ↩
- David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York : Oxford University Press, 2004) 254. ↩
- George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It (1957; reprint, New York : Da Capo Press, 1987), 213. ↩
- See Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (Charlottesville, Va. : Univ. of Virginia Press, 1990), 7-8, 13 (the officers “led the company in a charge”). ↩