By Katie Rice '10
As a high school senior in Flower Mound, Texas, Fred Baker '00 skipped his school's prom in order to attend another sweaty, nerve-wracking endeavor. Baker suited up carefully in a faded gray uniform: the guise of a soldier from the Ninth Texas Infantry. Surrounded by the bass notes of firing cannons, he spent the weekend at a Civil War reenactment in Louisiana.
It was the mid-1990s, the zenith of the hobby of Civil War reenacting. A series of films had been released — Glory, then the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, then Gettysburg — that had reignited popular interest in America's bloodiest war. Tens of thousands of civilians would come together, with various levels of authentic dress and equipment, to reenact some of the war's most momentous battles.
Baker, a history buff since his earliest days, joined the reenacting crowd when he was 16.
"I was absolutely petrified by the first events that I ever went to," he said. "It was very spooky and worrisome — it's this unknown. When a cannon goes off it literally will lift you off the ground with the concussion of the blast. You've got cavalry running everywhere, formations of men running, officers yelling."
Baker's group, a collection of 30 or so reenactors from the Dallas area, often portrayed the battles in which the Ninth Texas Infantry had been involved. Even after he left Texas to attend Hendrix, Baker would rendezvous with them at battles across the South — sometimes several times a month.
"I asked some of the old hands, 'OK, what do we know about these guys? Where did they fight?'" Baker said. "But there wasn't a whole lot that was known. That's what led to my particular curiosity about these guys. I'm interested just in knowing their story."
Unsurprisingly, Baker dove fully into the American and European history coursework at Hendrix, effectively double-majoring in history by the time he graduated. To this day, no other student has topped his total: 22 classes within the department.
His Hendrix career was capped off with a two-trimester class called History 4100: Advanced Research and Writing, taught by all five of the Hendrix history professors. As required, Baker produced a lengthy research paper that put his historiographic research skills to the test. He sought to fill in the sizeable gaps in the historical record of the Ninth Texas Infantry.
"One of the things that I was wholly unaware of, that I credit totally to my Hendrix classes and particularly to Dr. [Mark] Schantz, is the idea of primary sources," he said. "That's where I think the real history is, so as much as possible, my writing is these guys telling their own story. If I want to know what it was like to be a soldier in this unit, they're telling me."
In the 12 years that have followed, Baker has ascended the ranks of the Hendrix admission office to sit as Interim Director of Admission — a valiant leader in his own right. Meanwhile, he has polished his thesis into a book-length manuscript titledFar From God and Texas. The work is narrated by the voices of a portion of the 1,000 soldiers in that regiment who fought together across the southeastern United States.
In many cases, it took years for Baker to find the diaries and letters that have informed his work. Using archives and genealogical websites, Baker traced dozens of dead ends before finding living descendants with information to share.
"I remember talking to one man who was in his seventies who sent me copies of onion skin, typed transcripts of a diary, because he really wanted his ancestor's story to be shared," Baker recalled. "That's what this manuscript is infused with and what I consider to be the skeleton of the thing: the guys who lived it telling their own story. It's a narrative history of what a four-year slice of life was like for these 1,000-odd guys who signed on and went off to war, and the very few who managed to see it to the end."
The 280-page manuscript is ready to publish, but after a promising offer from a university press, it became a temporary casualty of the rocky economy. As Far From God and Texas sits on hold, Baker is already contemplating his next phase of historical research. In the evenings, he is wrapping up a master's degree in history, and soon it will be thesis time yet again.
"I've tried to keep at least a toe dipped in the waters of academia and thinking and history, while going down a path that's fairly divergent, but immensely fulfilling and fun."
Katie Rice '10 graduated from Hendrix with a double major in American Studies and in International Relations and Global Studies. She is now an Admission Counselor at Hendrix.