‘Big Pete,’ W.H. Bates and The Star Spangled Banner

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Question: What do Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates, the Hanging Judge of Andersonville, and The Star Spangled Banner all have in common?

Answer: Mexico.

No, we’re not talking about that Mexico, and not that Star Spangled Banner, either. In this case, we mean a town in Missouri called Mexico, and a Civil War-era newspaper printed there that was dubbed “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Mexico, Mo., was also the home for the last 35 years of his life of Peter “Big Pete” McCullough, known as the Hanging Judge of Andersonville.

McCullough, Bates and The Star Spangled Banner are spotlighted on a pair of informative historical panels created by the Missouri’s Civil War Heritage Foundation (www.mocivilwar.org). The panels, one featuring Bates and The Star Spangled Banner and the other featuring McCullough, will be formally dedicated at a ceremony in Mexico on Tuesday afternoon, April 12.

This project was brought to the attention of the Pekin Public Library last fall, when Gabriela Molina, programs coordinator of Missouri’s Civil War Heritage Foundation, contacted the library seeking additional information on W.H. Bates of Pekin.

Regular readers of this column will recall that Pekin’s own W.H. Bates, who had a lifelong career in the fields of printing and newspapers, had a part in the printing of The Star Spangled Banner. As we have noted previously, during the Civil War Bates volunteered for the U.S. Army from 1861 to 1864, serving in Companies C and H, 8th Missouri Infantry, 15th Army Corps.

His published 1930 obituary, repeating information from a biographical sketch that was included in Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” says Bates “and other printers in his regiment issued a paper from a print shop they took over at Mexico, Mo., printing the edition on manila wrapping paper, the only kind available, the owner having secreted the print paper at the approach of the troops.”

Allensworth’s history, page 976, presenting information that must have been provided by Bates himself, adds these details: “William Henry Bates, on his arrival at the United States Arsenal, St. Louis, became a member of Company C, Eighth Missouri Infantry (American Zouaves), and took part in the engagement in Wentzville, Mo., July 16, 1861, and several skirmishes prior to, and after the occupancy of City of Mexico, Mo., where, on the 19th, the printers in A. B. and C. companies of the Eighth Missouri, issued the first Union half-sheet newspaper printed in the Confederacy, and named it ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”

The printing equipment had belonged to a Mexico resident named Robert Verdier. The paper’s editor was Chester H. Childs, who, according to the 1860 U.S. Census, was a bookkeeper in St. Louis before the war.

Star Spangled Banner Newspaper

Shown is the top portion of the first edition of The Star Spangled Banner, a Civil War paper produced in Mexico, Mo., by the members of the Missouri Eighth Infantry on July 19, 1861. William H. Bates of Pekin was one of the soldiers who helped print this paper. The only known surviving copy of the paper is preserved at the Mexico Audrain County Library. IMAGE PROVIDED BY GABRIELA MOLINA OF MISSOURI’S CIVIL WAR HERITAGE FOUNDATION

Despite the conditions under which this newspaper was produced – under the stresses and strains of war, using poorer quality and less durable paper – an original copy of The Star Spangled Banner has survived the 155 years since it was printed. It was donated several years ago to the Audrain County Historical Society in Mexico and is preserved in the archives of the Mexico Audrain County Library. It’s the only copy known still to exist.

With the permission of the Mexico Audrain County Library and the assistance of the Missouri’s Civil War Heritage Foundation, the Pekin Public Library has been supplied with a color photocopy of the top half of this historic newspaper which Bates helped to print, along with reproductions of the proofs of the historical panels to be dedicated this Tuesday.


Shown is a full page image of The Star Spangled Banner’s first issue, which is preserved in Mexico, Mo. IMAGE PROVIDED BY GABRIELA MOLINA

As a journalistic project of Union troops charged with securing Missouri for the United States in the face of strong Confederate sympathy, The Star Spangled Banner’s purpose was to promote the Union cause, to reassure Union sympathizers in Mexico that the American Zouaves would keep them safe, and to warn Confederate sympathizers that, as the newspaper proclaimed, “The time of temporizing with rebellion in this part of the State is past.”

After their activities in Mexico, the Eighth Missouri was sent to St. Louis and then down to Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Paducah, Ky. While in Cape Girardeau, Bates was transferred from Company C to Company H, known as the Peoria-Pekin, Illinois, Company, since its members had come from this area.

“Although most soldiers were recruited from St. Louis and its vicinities,” wrote Molina in a letter to the Pekin Public Library in February this year, “some of the first companies were from your part of Illinois. As you will read in the panels, The Eighth Missouri Volunteer Infantry made their way to Mexico where they appropriated printing equipment to publish the Star Spangled Banner. It is a coincidence that the other panel features Pete McCullough of McLean, Illinois, who was also part of the Eighth Missouri. As best we can tell, McCullough was not part of the group that went to Mexico in July 1861, but he moved to Mexico after the war.”

The informational panel tells how McCullough, who died in Mexico on Dec. 5, 1915, acquired the moniker of “the Hanging Judge of Andersonville.” As the panel relates, after the fall of Vicksburg, McCullough was captured by the Confederate Army in July 1863, and as a prisoner of war he ended up at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga.

“As the Confederate prison became more and more overcrowded,” the panel says, “Union prisoners engaged in thievery and other depredations against fellow prisoners. Prison authorities allowed Union prisoners to establish a ‘court’ to enforce discipline, and Big Pete McCullough was elected judge. A number of men were tried for various offenses, but six of the prisoners were brought up on charges of murder. A jury was empaneled, and McCullough presided over a two day trial. The six were convicted of murder and hanged on July 11, 1864. Visitors to the Andersonville National Cemetery find among nearly 13,000 graves the stones of these six, conspicuously separated from those of other prisoners.”

Thanks to the dedication of historians and archivists in Missouri, we today can learn of some of the remarkable stories and personalities from these pivotal years of American history that highlight long-forgotten connections between the communities of Mexico, Mo., and Pekin, Ill.

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