Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Unsung Patriot by Virginia Vassallo

Unsung Patriot: Guy T. Viskniskki

How The Stars and Stripes Began

By Virginia G. Vassallo



The story of The Stars and Stripes newspaper begins in Missouri during the Civil War. On November 2, 1861, Brigadier General U. S. Grant issued orders to Colonel Richard J. Oglesby, commanding officer of the 8th Illinois Infantry Regiment, which was stationed in a small Missouri village across the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois. Colonel Oglesby was to command an expedition to destroy rebel forces under the command of Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson stationed in Stoddard County, Missouri.

Colonel Oglesby began to organize the forces, consisting of about twenty-two hundred men from his regiment and those of the 11th, 18th and 29th Illinois Infantry Regiments. On Tuesday, November 5, the Union forces started for Bloomfield, Missouri, the county seat of Stoddard County. They traveled by the most direct route - crossing a seven-mile wide swamp on November 7. “The ground was covered with black moss four inches deep and so thick that tis like a carpet. That was an awful gloomy road and I was glad enough to land at a nice clean stream and have orders to pitch tents.”

While Colonel Oglesby's command was on the move, General Grant also issued orders for his troops at Cape Girardeau and Ironton to converge on Bloomfield. Troops were converging on the town from the east, northeast and northwest. The Confederate commander realized his predicament and withdrew his forces to the south.

On November 7, the 10th Iowa Regiment was the first of the Union forces to enter Bloomfield. They occupied the town until Colonel Oglesby's forces arrived the next day. At that time, the Iowa forces were ordered to Belmont, Missouri, where a battle had been fought the day before.

The Illinois troops arrived in Bloomfield about 9:00 a.m. on November 8 and were to spend that day and night camped in town. During the day some of the troops started looting Bloomfield; Colonel Oglesby sent a police force to stop it.

Other Union troops noticed the abandoned office of the Bloomfield Herald newspaper, whose editor, a New Jersey native, had fled with the Confederate troops. During the evening of November 8, 1861, ten of the soldiers entered the Herald's office and, as Captain Daniel H. Brush of Company K, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment, wrote, “Some printers belonging to our regtt. and the others have taken possession of the printing office and design publishing a paper tonight.” The newspaper was christened The Star and Stripes. The paper was distributed on Saturday, November 9, to the Union troops in and around Bloomfield. It is uncertain how many copies of this first issue were printed, but it seems likely that the word was “Read it and pass it on.”

Of the first ten Stripers, three were from Carmi, Illinois, and three were from Fairfield, Illinois:

Benson T. Atherton was a recruit in Company G, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment. He was a resident of Fairfield. Discharged from the army on November 1, 1862, due to wounds, he was the publisher of the Prairie Pioneer.

James T. Boseman was a recruit in Company G, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment. A resident of Carmi, he was later transferred to the Regimental Band.

Theodore Edmonson was a Corporal in Company G, 18th Illinois Infantry Regiment. A resident of Fairfield, he was publisher of the Illinois Patriot. According to the 1860 census, he was a seventeen-year-old printer with assets of $1,900.

Walter A. Rhue was a recruit in Company G, 18th Illinois Regiment. Another resident of Carmi, he had been a publisher before the war. He was later transferred to the Regimental Band. He was discharged on March 14, 1862, due to a lingering illness caused by unhealthy water and exposure while serving in the army.

John W. Schell was another resident of Fairfield, Illinois. He was a Corporal and later was promoted to Sergeant of Company D, 8th Illinois. In 1860 the census shows him as a twenty-two-year-old printer with assets of $150. He married and became an Alabama farmer. However, he did enlist in the Spanish-American War and served as a brigade wagon master.

Robert T. Stewart was First Sergeant of Company B, 29th Illinois Regiment. He was also a resident of Carmi and had been an editor of the White County Advocate before the war. During the action at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in February, 1862, he became ill and never regained his health. He lost most of his sight, yet Stewart became the editor and publisher of the Carmi Courier. His employees had to read the newspaper to him and assist him with his signature. He died on June 10, 1913.1

How many of these soldiers made it back to Carmi, Illinois, after the war? Did they recount their story of publishing the first Stars and Stripes? Certainly their comrade in arms, Thomas Viskniskki, of Company G, 18th Illinois Regiment, must have known of the first Stars and Stripes. He had enlisted in Fairfield, Illinois, in May of 1861. Did

Thomas know Benson Atherton, John Schell and Theodore Edmonson from his time spent in Fairfield? Or did they all meet during their training and their time spent in the army?

We will never know the answers to these questions. But we can speculate.

We know that Thomas was listed as present with his unit during November, 1861. He must have been in Bloomfield, Missouri, the day the paper was published. In later years he must have told his extended family of the excitement of that first edition of The Stars and Stripes. Maybe he even had a treasured copy of that issue, carried throughout his years of fighting for his adopted county.

1The Stars and Stripes: The Civil War Edition

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