Word of the April 1861 Confederate attack on Fort Sumter spread quickly in the state that had just given the United States its new president, Abraham Lincoln.
Although Illinois had been declared free territory in 1787 by the Northwest Ordinance and declared a free state in 1818, it bordered the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri. Geographically, Illinois had the appearance of a dagger pointing straight into the heart of the Southern States. The point of this imaginary dagger was Cairo.
Naturally located at the confluence of the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Cairo held the key to the free flow of trade from the Midwest region to the south and then to world markets. Because of its strategic military importance to the Union, Illinois Governor Richard Yates decisively ordered Illinois soldiers to occupy the small town that, a year earlier, had 2,000 residents. Over the next six months, Cairo’s population would increase by thousands as more regiments arrived, including Colonel James Readon’s 29th Illinois Infantry Regiment, whose members included a company of young men from Metropolis.
Initially, the regiment was made up of brigades with the 18th, 27th and 31st Illinois Regiments and under the command of Egyptian lawyer and politician John Alexander McClernand, a personal friend of Lincoln. Unlike West Point military graduates like Ulysses Grant and other generals, McClernand’s appointment was seen as political and made in the hope that he and others like him would help secure the region for the Union.
Situated on low ground and prone to seasonal flooding, conditions at the camp in Cairo were less than desirable for new recruits. In his diary, Sgt. William S. Bolerjack described the hot weather and appalling sanitary conditions which caused numerous cases of diarrhea, fever and measles. Not only has this left many unfit for work, but also caused premature dismissals due to disability.
From this base of operations throughout the fall and early winter, the 29th Illinois participated in a number of expeditions to Southeast Missouri and western Kentucky in the aim to forage for food, confiscate crops and livestock or suppress rebel bushwhacking in the area.
By order of Grant, the 29th Illinois was dispatched to the Mississippi as a force to reconnoitre the West Bank opposite Columbus, Kentucky. This action followed the Confederate occupation of this strategic river town on September 3, 1861.
The Feds left Cairo on the SS “General Scott” under gunship escort, landing just above Belmont, Missouri. They were forced to make their way noiselessly through a swamp of poplar trees and ordered to return to transport immediately if they heard “one long and 15 short whistles from the boat,” Bolerjack said. “At last the signal was given, and we returned soon. They spent the night on the “General Scott” and continued their sighting the next day without incident.
As November rolled around, the martial life of the 29th Illinois reached a new level. Colonel Richard J. Oglesby, later elected Governor of Illinois, was ordered by Grant to lead an expeditionary force of 2,200 men comprising the 8th, 11th, 18th, and 29th Illinois Regiments in Mississippi to Mississippi. ‘in Commerce, Missouri. From this point of disembarkation, soldiers would attempt to neutralize “the swamp fox” General Jeff Thompson and his roving guerrilla bands, who were threatening Union-friendly residents of Missouri.
Early in the morning of November 4, the 29th Illinois stepped off the “Memphis” steamboat and, with its brigade, prepared for the inland march. Departing the next morning, they arrived as far as Benton, Missouri, and bivouacked on the farm of a Confederate colonel by the name of Hunter, who, surprised by their arrival, promptly set off without a saddle on his horse. Like so many rebel soldiers, he left the care of his farm to his wife and children. There was little Mrs. Hunter could do to stop the starving Union soldiers from running away from her pigs, sheep and poultry. In his diary, Pvt. Henry Shapard, of the 29th Illinois, recounted how unhappy Ms. Hunter was with this turn of events and told them that her husband would come back with 10,000 Confederates and drive them out. The only response to his threat was laughter and the expressed wish that he would indeed come back!
After a miserable march through 30 miles of swamps and forests, the 29th and its brigade encountered the 8th and 21st Iowa Regiments on the afternoon of November 8 in Bloomfield, the capital of Stoddard County, Missouri. . Thompson’s forces had just left and escaped capture.
Even though the Boys in Blue only stayed in Bloomfield for a few days, they left their mark on the history books when a few experienced printing soldiers broke into the local newspaper office and printed their own newspaper. . They named it “The Stars and Stripes”. Although this was only a one-time edition, it was recognized as the premier “Stars and Stripes” newspaper, which is still distributed today to all US military personnel serving around the world.
Phil Shapard lives in Winfield and is the great-great-grandson of Pvt. Henry Shapard of the 29th Illinois Infantry Volunteers. His family has been present in Massac and Pope counties for over 160 years. He can be contacted at [email protected]