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"Private Joe" Fifer

Published July 5, 2007
Countries: USA, USA (Civil War)
Age Levels: 9 and up

"Private Joe, Private Joe, Private Joe Fifer!"


The crowd marched down the street in Bloomington carried torches in a spontaneous parade as they called for their friend Joe Fifer to be elected for governor of the state of Illinois.


The word went over the telegraph wire, and soon marches started in other parts of the state.  Fifer was one of them!  Electing Private Joe Fifer would be like electing their best friend to office.


Joe Fifer moved to McLean County when he was only sixteen years old.  The year was 1856, one year before Jesse Fell and other citizens of Bloomington managed to get the state of Illinois to build the first Illinois State Normal Teachers College in the area just south of Bloomington.  Later, a town would build up there, and it would be called Normal.  Joe Fifer and his family lived in Danvers, a small town to the southwest of Bloomington and almost directly west of where the new teachers' school would be.


Joe had been born in Stanton, VA in 1840 in a family of eight brothers and sisters.  He has gone to a district school in Virginia and wanted to continue his education in Illinois.  His dad started a brick factory in Danvers.  Joe worked in the brick factory and was reported to be a good worker.  But, his heart was not into clay and bricks.  He wanted to continue his education and study to become a lawyer.  So the idea of a new teachers' school in the area sounded good to him.


Joe spent as much time as he could around the building where classes were held in downtown Bloomington while the school itself was built.  He also spent time around the classrooms of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.  Joe Fifer learned by talking to the teachers and to the students and all the other interesting people he met.  Actually taking classes was hard at that time.  With eight kids in the family and Dad starting a new business, there wasn't enough money to actually take the classes himself.


Still Joe dreamed of being a lawyer.  His favorite days were spent watching and listening to a tall lanky lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was in town often as he tried cases from Bloomington to Springfield.  Lincoln stayed overnight at his friend's house whenever he was in town.  The friend was Judge David Davis. 


Many-a-time, Joe Fifer got to listen to Davis and Lincoln and other men as they swapped stories and talked about points of law.  He'd heard that one of Lincoln's cases wasn't going well.  It seems that Lincoln had been trying a murder case in another county. 


Abe told everyone in the crowd that he was almost certain that he would lose the case.  Joe recalled how Lincoln's face had gone from sour to happy and how he developed a twinkle in his eye as he talked about the judge calling a recess so everyone could rest a bit before the proceedings ended.


"I sure am thirsty," the man on trial told Lincoln that day.


Lincoln replied, "I understand the water over the border in Kentucky is mighty sweet to drink!"


When court resumed, the man was nowhere to be found.  Folks think he skipped out of the state to avoid being hanged for murder.  "Wherever he went," mused Lincoln, "I didn't lose that case!"


Joe Fifer was present on the day when Lincoln gave his lost speech.  The crowd, including the reporters, was so absorbed in listening to what Lincoln said that no one wrote down a single word of the speech.  Everyone, including Joe said it was the finest speech Lincoln ever gave.  It was no wonder that Joe Fifer became a Republican.  The same building where Fifer sat in on conversations and where Lincoln gave his lost speech was the birth place of the Republican Party and the place where David Davis first talked about supporting Lincoln as a candidate for President of the United States.


Lincoln did get elected President.  But, as soon as he did, several of the southern states seceded from the United States, and the nation found itself at war.  The fighting was called the War Between the States by some and the Civil War by others.


As soon as the call came over the telegraph wire from Lincoln asking for volunteers to fill Illinois regiments in the Union Army, Private Joe Fifer and his brother, George, walked a dozen miles barefoot from Danvers into town and signed up immediately.  They became part of Company C in the Illinois 33rd Regiment.


Part of this same regiment was made up of teachers and students from the Illinois state Normal School.  They were led by Colonel Charles E. Hovey.  Hovey had been the first principal for the students from the teachers' school when the students attended class in downtown Bloomington and had been named as the first president of the college after the building on the new campus was completed in the area that was starting to be called Normal.


Some folks called them the Normal Regiment.  Others called them the Teachers' Regiment.  Other soldiers claimed the men were smarter than most other soldiers.  It may have been true, and it might have not.  But it made sense to Fifer since most soldiers had only gone to school for a few years at the most.  Many had not even been able to write their names when joining the army.  They signed their name with an X and had someone who could write sign as a witness for them.  Yet the soldiers around Joe Fifer all seemed to have studied long after grade school.


Joe Fifer traveled with the 33rd through Missouri and many other places throughout the south.  He told of standing with another soldier on one day when they spotted two enemy soldiers.  They both raised their rifles and Joe's friend pulled his trigger right before Joe could fire.  Fifer recalled watching the enemy soldier fall dead.  The thought of killing another man disturbed him greatly, and he couldn't pull his trigger in time to stop the other enemy soldier from getting away.  Joe hoped that the man made it back to his wife and family and that no Union soldier was hurt by that man at a later time.


Fifer made it a point to work hard to do his duties and was seriously wounded in the fight for Vicksburg.  Doctors said he probably would die of his wound and that the only way to stop his high fever was with ice, which no one had.  His brother George found out where there was ice over 50 miles away and found a way to get it in time to bring his fever down.  George found a way to get the ice.  Joe survived the war, spending the last days of the war guarding a prison ship.  George did not survive.  He died in a battle down in Texas.


Joe's time in the army gave him a pension of $24 each month.  Fifer used this money and other money he earned to go to Illinois Wesleyan University and studies to become a lawyer.  He and George had both shared this dream, and Joe planned to carry it out for both of them.  He graduated in 1968 and was admitted to the bar the next year.  He became a Bloomington lawyer like those he had listened to as a younger man so many years before.  Then he became corporate council of Bloomington, then state's attorney for two years and was elected to the state senate in 1880.


During this time, a politician in Washington, General John Black, started trying to take away pension money from former soldiers, saying they didn't need it or they didn't deserve it.  The man dared to say that Fifer had gotten his money through political favors and ignored the fact that Joe almost died of wounds.  Fifer wrote to the newspapers and had fire in his words that burned the eyes of people who read it.  He got to keep his $24 a month pension.  At the same time, his name was remembered all across the state of Illinois.  A private took on a general and won.  Private Joe Fifer!


When the election for governor came several years later, a number of former generals, a major and a captain all wanted to be elected.  "Why not a private?" suggested one man.   The words could soon be heard everywhere, "Private Joe, Private Joe, Private Joe Fifer!"


Fifer was elected governor in 1888 and served one term.  He was beaten in his re-election and refused to run again even though he was asked by the Republican Party to do so on several occasions.  Fifer traveled the state helping other republicans until he was hit by a car at age 92.  Private Joe Fifer lived blind, deaf and crippled for another six years before he died in 1938.


The people of Illinois are lucky.  Two years before Fifer's death, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune traveled to Bloomington.  He spent two full days talking to Fifer and learning stories that would have never been heard if the trip had not been made.  Fifer's memories and stories were recorded in a book called "Private Joe" Fifer.  The book can be viewed at the McLean County Historical Museum.



Bennett, James O'Donnell, "Private Joe" Fifer, Pantagraph Printing and Stationary, Bloomington, IL, 1936

Return to Famous Guardsmen, Governor Joseph W. Fifer Website:

"The Governors of Illinois, 1818-1918"; Issued by the Illinois Centennial Commission JOSEPH W. FIFER - 1888-l892.

Joseph w. Fifer

Decisive Dates in Illinois History, A Story of the State, By Lottie B. Jones. Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company, 1909.

Daily Pantagraph

Dr. Mike Lockett is an educator, storyteller and children's author from Normal, IL. Dr. Lockett has given more than 4000 programs across the USA and as far away as eastern Asia. Contact Mike by writing to in order to book him for a storytelling program or young authors program or to inquire about purchasing his books and CDs.