TBT: The story of Private Joe

Brothers George and Joseph Fifer in their union army uniforms during the
Civil War. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
In the decades following the Civil War, Illinois, like most northern states, saw veterans elected to many positions throughout government. At first, Joe Fifer of Bloomington was no different. A wounded veteran of Vicksburg, an attorney and briefly a state senator, Fifer had gone back to his law practice in Bloomington when his term ended.

Fifer may have spent the rest of his career in McLean County courtrooms if not for a shocking personal attack on him from Washington, and his equally ferocious defense, which gained him national fame and launched him into the Illinois Governor’s office.

Joseph Fifer was born in Virginia in 1840 and moved with his family to Danvers, Illinois, in his teens. He heard Abraham Lincoln speak when he visited Bloomington in 1858. “I could tell you what he said, portions of it, in his exact words, so deep was its impression upon me,” he told an interviewer nearly 70 years later.

When the Civil War broke out, Fifer heeded President Lincoln’s call and enlisted in Company C of
Joseph W. Fifer
the 33rd Illinois volunteer regiment. In 1863 he was severely wounded in his right lung and liver during General Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. Battlefield surgeons expected the young soldier to die from his wound. But Fifer held on. Recovering, he refused the discharge from the Army that was offered to him, and remained in uniform until the end of his enlistment in 1864. Not long after returning home he learned that his brother George had been killed in action. “His death grieved me deeply, and I hated war more than ever,” he said.

After the war Fifer graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington and was admitted to the bar the following year. He married Gertrude Lewis in 1870 and they had two children. Around that same time, Fifer was elected city attorney in Bloomington and also served two terms as the McLean County State’s Attorney. Fifer served two terms in the Illinois Senate, retiring from the body in 1885.

While Fifer was returning to his law practice, President Grover Cleveland was appointing General John Black of Danville as his commissioner of pensions. Black believed the veterans’ pension rolls to be padded with unworthy recipients, and he chose to make an example of Fifer. Black went before a Senate committee and downplayed the severity of Fifer’s wound while insinuating that Fifer had pulled strings with prominent Illinois politicians to get his pension. The General repeated his allegations in a letter published in a partisan newspaper in Bloomington. Local veterans were outraged that a general would attack a private soldier’s integrity in such a way, particularly one with Fifer’s service record.

Fifer struck back hard in a letter which received wide publication. Noting that he had earned his $24 monthly pension by shedding blood on the battlefield, he furiously lit into Black for his “groundless and very mean attack upon my character as a soldier and gentleman.” He noted that Black’s much-larger pension came from an act of Congress. He then offered to compare wounds with the General, who had suffered a wound to his hand during the war.

“I believe,” Fifer wrote, “that no American soldier of your rank has learned better than you, both the pecuniary and the political value of wounds. Before your pension of one hundred dollars a month had been voted to you by Congress, I am told, you had already acquired that rare trait of yours of always extending in greeting your wounded left hand. Should you ever challenge me to a comparison of sores with you, I beg of you remember, in charity if not in fraternity and loyalty, that my disfigurement from rebel lead is not so conveniently located for purposes of exhibition as your own.”

Private Fifer had stood up to the general on behalf of every common soldier in the Republic. He became an overnight hero among veterans of the Union Army, especially members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the post-war veteran organization which by the 1880s was one of the most powerful political groups in America. GAR posts throughout Illinois adopted resolutions praising Fifer and condemning Black.

The letter attracted the notice of state Treasurer John Tanner, who had been friends with Fifer when they served together in the Senate. Tanner wrote to Fifer, “You are the man to head our ticket for Governor,” in 1888.

At the nominating convention, Fifer found himself up against a collection of generals and other senior officers. His campaign managers bestowed upon him the nickname “Private Joe,” to make him stand out from the field, and also to emphasize his advocacy for everyday veterans. He won the nomination on the fourth ballot and then swept to victory over another general that fall.

Private Joe Fifer became the 19th Governor of Illinois in January 1889. At his inauguration he spoke of the need for election reforms, a crackdown on bribery and action against crime. That evening, at a reception at the Governor’s mansion, his daughter Florence stole the show by sliding down a bannister into the middle of the festivities.

Joseph and Gertrude Fifer, 1930. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Governor Fifer launched himself into several important efforts. Taking office amidst the early days of the progressive movement, Fifer championed the “Australian ballot,” a policy that had the government furnish ballots to citizens at each election for them to vote as they chose, rather than having the ballots provided by the political parties. During Fifer’s governorship, voting rights were extended to women in school elections and child labor was prohibited for those under the age of 13. It was also during Fifer’s term that funding for the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was authorized.

Fifer gained a reputation as a governor who worked well with both parties. “Party leaders were harmonious and our political opponents often dropped their partisanship for the social amenities,” he recalled.

Later in life he even demurred from attacking General Black, saying, “We became good friends in later years and I learned to respect him. I would not now say one word in derogation of General Black. He was a good soldier and an able officer.”

He found his way into controversy, however, in his first year in office with a compulsory education law which came to be known as the “little red schoolhouse” issue. Fifer signed legislation requiring all children in the state to be taught their curriculum in English up until the age of 12. The legislation applied to both public and private schools, and included lessons in math, history, geography, reading and writing.

While the education bill passed on a bipartisan basis, it soon attracted opposition. One interpretation of the law was that it would force children to attend public schools and would allow local school boards to inspect private schools. Fifer denied that either of these interpretations were true. Some German-Americans objected to the English-only mandate. Criticism of the law would play a major part in the 1892 campaign when it helped lead John Altgeld to victory over Fifer.

In keeping with his reputation, Fifer was gracious to his successor. “Governor Altgeld and I became warm, personal friends,” he said. “He was sturdy and fearless, had the courage of his convictions and was not politic in expressing them.… He was honest in my opinion, absolutely so, and a very able man intellectually.”

Fifer retired to his home on McLean Street in Bloomington. He was approached to run for Governor again in 1900, but by now both age and his war wound were beginning to take their toll. He was appointed to the federal Interstate Commerce Commission by President William McKinley, but eventually resigned that post because of his health. In 1918, he appeared with Governor Frank Lowden and other former Governors at the Illinois Centennial Celebration in Springfield, and that same year he became state GAR commander.

A young Florence Fifer Bohrer.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum.
Governor Fifer, the “grand old man of Illinois,” became a trusted advisor to 20th century governors who drew on his good relations and long institutional knowledge. Since his enactment of legislation expanding voting rights in 1891, further extensions of the franchise to women had followed, culminating in the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which in 1920 struck down all barriers to voting rights on the basis of gender. Soon, women began running for state offices in Illinois, and in 1924, Fifer’s daughter Florence, who had made that dramatic arrival into his inaugural party now made a much more important entrance: becoming the first woman elected to the Illinois Senate.

“Private Joe” Fifer, who survived a Civil War bullet wound, was badly injured 70 years later when he was struck by an automobile at the age of 92. He lived for a few more years, dying at the age of 97 in 1938. He is buried at Park Hill Cemetery in his home town of Bloomington.

Asked to look back upon his life and career during a 1925 interview, Fifer declined, choosing instead to look forward:

“We hear sometimes about the good old times. They were good old times. Yes, we revere them for the men and women whom we knew then, but the best times are the present times,” he said. “The American people have everything to be thankful for. Their destiny has not been fulfilled. They have not played their part to the end. I have faith in the future and my only regret is that I am not a young man to participate in the making of the history of the coming fifty years and to witness its writing.”