A Very Strong Baker

Luther Baker was a strong man, and it seems as though he was always destined to be; after all, Strong was in his name. Luther Strong Baker was born on March 22, 1840 in Allegany County, New York to Daniel Baker and Abigail Strong, the sixth of fifteen children. He’s described in multiple sources as being “a citizen of prominence and public spirit” who gave “a due share of his time and thoughts to the demands of society in general;” likewise, he was “frank and genial” with all, “loved” in his domestic circle and was popular with his associates. How did he live up to the Strong family name? It was a combination of pursuits, but it all comes back to the Civil War: he probably had the most extensive military career of anyone in my family tree.

In May 1861, at the age of 21, Luther enlisted in the American Civil War in Roulette, Pennsylvania for the duration of three months’ service. He did not leave the state of Pennsylvania for the entirety of this service, though, and on September 28, 1861, he decided to re-enlist for a term of three years in Company H of the 46th Pennsylvania Infantry under Captain Alexander W. Selfridge and Colonel Joseph F. Knipe. From September 1861 to February 1862, Luther and his company were performing guard and outpost duty on the upper Potomac River in Maryland; in March of that year, the unit crossed the Potomac and marched to Winchester, Virginia, beginning their part of what was to become the Valley Campaign. Luther fought at the First Battle of Winchester in May, and then the Battle of Cedar Moutain broke out.

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Luther Strong Baker leading a procession in Sterling, Colorado, c. 1885

In early August, the Union Army received reports that Stonewall Jackson’s troops were marching toward Virginia, and the 46th Pennsylvania Infantry was ordered to attack them near a promontory known as Cedar Mountain. On August 9, the Union troops advanced across a wheat field and smashed into the left wall of Jackson’s line. The 46th Infantry then split into two directions, fighting in hand-to-hand combat and pushing Jackson’s troops together on either side. There were no Union reinforcements sent to sustain the breakthrough, though, and a Confederate counterattack with an additional company won the day. The battle devastated the ranks of the 46th Infantry; out of a total of 504 engaged, 31 men were killed, 102 were wounded and 111 were taken as prisoners or reported “missing.” And Luther? He was taken as a prisoner, too.

Luther was held at Belle Isle–a 54-acre island in the city of Richmond, Virginia that served as a prison for Union soldiers during the American Civil War–and this, it seems, was the ultimate test of his strength. Belle Isle is described by many sources as an “open-air stockade,” and the prisoners’ only shelter came from 300 or fewer Sibley tents (conical, pole tents) that slept about ten each. Disease, as you can imagine, was rampant; one physician described the “great majority” of prisoners as being, “in a semi-state of nudity…laboring under such diseases as chronic diarrhea, phthisis pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites, general debility, caused by starvation, neglect and exposure. Many of them had partially lost their reason, forgetting even the date of their capture, and everything connected with their antecedent history.”

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Major Thomas P. Turner, the commandant of Belle Isle, inspecting the prison

Luther suffered from scurvy while imprisoned at Belle Isle, but by November, he had escaped the island and rejoined his regiment. He fought in the Battles of Antietam and Lookout Mountain and was wounded in both legs and the right foot at the Battle of Gettysburg, carrying the bullets with him for the rest of his life. Luther was at Peachtree Creek and Kennesaw Mountain, and he paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue with other Union soldiers at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Three other brothers were wounded during the Civil War, and they lost one brother, David, to the fight at Cedar Mountain–the same battle that resulted in Luther’s imprisonment.

At the end of the war, Luther returned home to Potter County, Pennsylvania; in 1870, he purchased a homestead in Jefferson County, Nebraska and started an insurance and real estate business in the area. He married Amanda Melvina Wells–who had moved to Nebraska with her family in 1867–on August 11, 1872, and they raised ten children together: Alvin, Adella, Andrew, Florence, William, James, Maud, Rosetta, David and Wanda. Luther was a larger-than-life figure in Nebraska: he and his wife were active in the political arena; he designed and built the first courthouse in Sterling, Colorado; and he even went on hunting rides with Buffalo Bill.

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The first courthouse in Sterling, Colorado, constructed in 1888

Luther was a strong man, and he certainly lived up to his name. By the time he passed away at the age of 85, he had helped to build his small town from the ground up and had acted as a commander in his Grand Army post. He had amassed a considerable amount of farmland to leave with his children and grandchildren, and he was well-regarded among his peers in both Pennsylvania and the Wild West. Newspaper reports of his death reached readers across the United States, and all of them described his courage and bravery during the Civil War, as well as the “prosperity of which he [was] well worthy.” “Strong” was the adjective each of them used again and again; I can’t think of a better word to describe him, either. 

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