Confederate sympathizer had to face the law


Thomas Baker arrived in Visalia with impressive credentials. He’d been a lawyer, surveyor, politician, U.S. district attorney and a military man, so it was predictable that he would play a key role in the town’s development.

Little did anyone realize that this man would become so polarizing and controversial that he would be arrested and confined to a military prison in the town he helped settle.

Born in 1810 on a farm in Ohio, Baker gravitated to the Ohio State Militia as a young man and achieved the rank of colonel, a title he would hold all his life. He studied law, became an attorney and began his westward journey.

Illinois was his home for a short time, then he was on to Iowa Territory, where he was appointed as the area’s first U.S. district attorney. When Iowa became a state, he was elected state senator, then became ex-officio lieutenant governor, the first in Iowa to hold that office.

Lured by adventure, Baker continued west, arriving in California in 1850.

Two years later, he became one of the few dozen hardy souls living in the protective stockade that would become known as Fort Visalia.

In 1853, Baker was one of only three lawyers in Tulare County, and he was appointed Tulare County judge. Two years later, he was off to the California Assembly, and a year after that, he was appointed receiver of the U.S. Land Office in Visalia.

Trouble began for Baker in 1861, when he was elected state senator for Tulare and Fresno counties. The Civil War was on everyone’s mind and the issues surrounding the war were emotionally charged.

Baker was a secessionist and he was a strong and vocal advocate for states rights.

He believed that states should be able to secede from the Union if they wanted to. In August 1862, Baker gave one speech that was especially harsh. Speaking to his Visalia constituents, he was quoted as saying that the South was right in its rebellious fight, and he called President Lincoln a liar, perjurer and hypocrite.

Baker, however, wasn’t the only political leader in the country with sympathy for the Confederacy. There were many others. Sensing a nation seriously divided over the war, Lincoln took action. He made it illegal for anyone to aid the rebel insurgency, to discourage enlistments in the United States Army, and to engage in any "disloyal practice." Violators would answer to military authorities and would be confined to military prisons.

Pressure was mounting on Baker. His anti-Union sentiments were getting him statewide attention and in October, the U.S. marshal paid him a visit while he was in San Francisco. The visit was a sign of things to come.

Later that month, Baker returned to Visalia and the authorities were waiting. At 7 a.m. Oct. 29, 1862, Deputy U.S. Marshal William S. Powell confronted Baker. He told him he was going to place him under arrest for discouraging enlistments and uttering treasonable sentiments. The senator asked whether he could delay the arrest until 9 a.m., and the marshal agreed. At the agreed upon time, Baker turned himself over to the lawman, who placed him in a buggy and delivered him to Col. George Evans, commander of Visalia’s Camp Babbitt. The guardhouse was his new home.

The following Monday, Baker faced military justice. He was asked whether he was loyal to the United States and he responded affirmatively by reciting an oath of allegiance. In it he solemnly swore that he was loyal to the country and would not support any effort to undermine it. With that, he was released from custody.

About a year later, Baker and his family moved south to the Kern River area on land that is now the town of Bakersfield … a town named after Tulare County’s famous one-term state senator.

© Copyright 2008 The Fresno Bee

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