Monday, November 7, 2011

Veteran's Day

"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…" – Woodrow Wilson

Private Joe Fifer and Lt. George H. Fifer

            At 11:00 o’clock on the morning of November 11, 1918 an armistice was signed that ended the hostilities between the Allied forces and Germany, effectively bringing WWI to an end. It was the “war to end all wars,” but sadly time has taught us that war has and always will be a part of mankind’s history. I doubt there is a family in America which has never been touched by war. Mine is no exception - from a great, great, great, great grandfather who enlisted as a volunteer in the Pennsylvania Militia in July of 1776, to my father who served as a radio-operator on a B-24 Liberator in the skies above Europe in WWII to my mother whose brother fell on the fields of Crion, France in October of 1944. However, for me it is a pair of cousins serving in the Civil War who truly epitomize what this day represents.

            George Fifer and his little brother, Joseph, were born at Jennings Gap near Staunton, Virginia to John and Mary Fifer in the first half of the 1800’s. John was a stone mason working with freed slaves to build gristmills throughout the Shenandoah Valley and was the man who built the Presbyterian manse in which the future president, the man who would declare the first Armistice Day, Woodrow Wilson, was born. In December of 1851, their mother Mary became ill and died while the family was living in Scotland, Missouri, and a few years later, John moved his family to Danvers, Illinois. Avoiding the prairie lands, their father set up his home and brick factory in the wooded land along the Mackinaw River because it reminded him of his Virginia homeland. Here the boys worked the land, cut cordwood and learned masonry skills alongside their father.
"Private Joe" Fifer

            But the family’s life was to be forever changed beginning in 1861. In April of that year, 11 southern states seceded from the United States and the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. An overconfident north believed the war would be short, and in July naïve and over-confident citizens turned out to watch the Battle of Bull Run as though it were going to be an afternoon play. What they saw instead was a bloody battle leaving nearly 2,900 Union soldiers dead, missing, captured or wounded and almost 1,900 of their Confederate counterparts in the same position. The country started to realize that this was to be a long, protracted war with very high stakes on both sides. A little more than two weeks later, George and Joe took a day off from their father’s masonry business to relax and fish on the Mackinaw River. Perched above the river on a log, they saw a fisherman approach in a boat and toss them a newspaper chronicling the defeat at Bull Run.  George read a quote in the paper from Senator Wigfall of Texas in which he stated the south was determined to establish a government whose cornerstone would be slavery. The boys decided then and there it was time to join the effort to save the Union. Running barefoot they hurriedly covered the ten miles back to town to enlist because they were afraid the war would end before they would see a battle. A couple days later they officially enlisted in Company C of the 33rd Illinois, a regiment that became known as the Normal Company because it was made largely of students from the local Illinois State Normal University. George would eventually rise to the rank of 1st Lieutenant and serve as an Aide de Camp while Joe would remain a private throughout the war.

Rather than the glories of war, what the brothers experienced for the first several weeks was boredom and constant drilling. However, as time passed the war became very real to them, and the romanticism of war quickly faded.  Friends and leaders died around them, and the weather often made life very unpleasant. Joe, in his biography written by James O’Donnell Bennett, recalled the conflicting images of war. Describing one of the springs early in their service Joe recalled, “It was mid-May now, and the magnolia trees were in bloom, and the roses and lilies and myrtles. Very beautiful-very beautiful!-and often I thought what a dreadful contrast it was to have all this bloody work going on in a setting of such beauty. So much beauty- and so much blood and pain, and the wary marches. It was hard to understand why so fair a world should not produce a race that could get on with itself.”

And the brothers would be faced with life altering decisions. Seventy three years after the fact, one particular skirmish still haunted Joe. He described it well to Bennett in his biography. “It was in east central Arkansas, mid-afternoon of a hot sunshiny day in the summer of 1862, just after the battle of Cottonplant. The enemy was in retreat and the 33rd Illinois was pursuing. A comrade and I were in the skirmish line on the edge of a bit of timber. We were about ten paces apart. Of a sudden we saw two Texas rangers watering their horses at a little stream.

“’I’ll take the one on the right,‘ said my comrade, ‘and you take the one on the left.’ He fired, and the one on the right sat rigid an instant, his arms upthrown, then tumbled off his horse.

“I was a dead shot- my Virginia father had seen to that- and the one on the left wasn’t sixty yards away. I raised my gun. But, before God, Bennett, I couldn’t pull that trigger.

“My man galloped away, as did the riderless horse. The other man lay on the ground, gasping ‘Water, water.’ We gave him some and did what else we could. He died in a few minutes.”

After recounting this story to the young reporter, Joe asked in a trembling voice, “Do you think I did right, Bennett?” Joe had weighed the cost of doing his duty as a soldier against taking a life. He ended the war with the comforting thought that he never knowingly killed a man. He knew he may have taken some lives, but it would have been through firing into a crowd and never looking a man in the eyes and pulling the trigger. In fact, the boy who ran home to enlist before the war could pass him by would leave the war an avowed pacifist.

The war would have an even more profound effect on the brothers before it was over. The first blow came on July 13, 1863 just nine days after the Union’s victory at Vicksburg. Minor skirmishes were breaking out and Joe found himself the victim of a Confederate’s minie ball. As he put it, “A Confederate bullet tore through my right lung and liver, leaving my body in the lower lumbar region. The official report by Dr. Rex, the surgeon, describes it in these words: ‘He was wounded in battle by a ball passing through the inferior lobe of the right lung, passing out through the superior portion of the liver. There was no mistake in the diagnosis of this case, as, when he was brought to the field hospital, the air escaped from the wounded lung at every respiration, and the next day there was a bilious discharge from the wounded liver. The prognosis was very unfavorable, and my own opinion, as well as that of several surgeons who saw him was that he would die.’” In fact, Joe had originally been reported as a fatality when he was brought in from the field. In pain and struggling to breath, he still managed one of those moments of dark humor that occur in war. His good friend Billy Bishop was brought in and laid on a cot a little lower than Joe. Billy had been shot through the nose and cheek and was a terrifying sight. However, when Joe looked down on his friend Billy “looked up at me, the whites of his eyes against the gory background, (and) I laughed out loud, he looked so much like a dying calf.”
Dr. Rex

Joe’s brother George was called to the hospital where he viewed his wounded brother. Shortly afterwards, George and Dr. Rex stepped outside to talk and George returned with tears in his eyes. Joe knew what those tears meant, but he reassured his brother he was not going to die. It was mid-July and the heat was overbearing. It was determined that Joe would indeed die if he could not be cooled, so George sent a rider through sniper infested areas to secure ice. With ice to cool them, Joe and Billy were packed side by side in an “army ambulance that had been bedded deep with cotton. The day was terribly hot and the air was thick with dirt. All that country had been tramped over and fought over and there had been no rain. Our trip was indescribable. Our wounds, the heat and the effect of the cotton on our backs tortured us.” Both men arrived in Vicksburg alive and would ultimately survive the war. The evening Joe was wounded, his brother George wrote a letter home to their father with “news (that) will be painful to you.” He urged his father to come to Vicksburg and take Joe home. His father never made the trip, and Joe recovered at a Vicksburg hospital until healthy enough to return home on a furlough. It would have been easy for him to leave the war at this time, but Joe asked to rejoin his regiment as soon as he was healthy enough, although he was reduced to guarding prisoners of war on a prison ship.

While Joe was home recuperating, troubling news reached the family back in Danvers, Illinois. While fighting to take Ft. Esperanza on Matagorda Island in Texas at the end of November of that same year, George had also been reported as having been wounded in action. What happened with George and Joe is best explained through a series of letters. The words of the participants far surpass what I can say. The first letter was the letter home to the Fifers from George’s commanding officer. It read as follows-
Capt. Edward J. Lewis

                                                            Fort Esperanza, Matagorda
                                                            Island, Texas: December 3rd, 1863.
Mr John Fifer

            Dear Sir
                        By request of your son George, First Lieutenant of my company, serving on Brigade Staff under Col. Washburn, I write to inform you that he was wounded on the 27th ult., in the first advances upon this place: Our force, under command of Maj. Gen. Washburn, arrived that day at about noon at this place, which is on the northern end of Matagorda Island: on the Gulf coast. Our Brigade was in the advance, and our skirmishers found the enemy in his advanced works, a good half mile from the fort, and engaged him from behind some sand hills. Lieut. Fifer was presently sent forward with an order to recall the skirmishers, and while going to the front for that purpose, was struck in the breast by a rebel bullet. Most happily, the shot was already partly spent, struck him rather slantingly instead of full in front, and struck a rib, glancing around the body and coming out at the back; so that instead of a fatal wound, it inflicted one which the surgeons do not even call dangerous, a far less severe one than that from which your gallant son Joseph has (I am glad to hear) so nearly recovered. The rib was not fractured. George was immediately picked up, carried to the rear, and attended to by good surgeons, and has since been comfortably provided for in a good house (the best which this island affords) and is as well situated as it is possible to be in the army. He wishes me particularly to assure you that he is doing very well, and that you need have no uneasiness on his account, and it is quite unnecessary for any of you to attempt to come down. I should have written you sooner, but we have been so constantly engaged in the front, away from all writing facilities, and I hoped he had been able to get a letter written by some of his friends and attendants at the hospital. I saw him last evening for the first time since the evening he was wounded. I concurred with the Chief Surgeon, Dr. Rex, and am able to add his assurance to George’s and my own, that George is doing well and not in danger from his wound. George wished me to tell you he would be in New Orleans within five days: but I have reliable information since, that the project of removing the sick and wounded to that place is postponed for some days at least. B. Bingham of my company is in constant attendance on George, and your neighbor Jonathan B. Lott is also with him for a few days; so I trust you will be convinced we are doing all in our power to make him comfortable. George received yesterday three letters from home, the last one dated, I think he said, 15th ult.

            The enemy abandoned all their works here on the night of the 30th, retreating by water, and setting fire to their magazines, the explosion of which first clearly notified us of the evacuation, which however we already suspected. The fort is of great strength, and eight cannon were left mounted on to walls. We now have complete possession of this important gateway of Texas. Our loss is very small; one man killed and eight or ten wounded, several of them by the explosions. None were hurt in our company except your son. Two of Co. G. (from your county) Kelly & Swearingen were wounded, Kelly by a shot in the shoulder, Swearingen by a fragment of wood from an explosion striking him in the face. Both are doing well. One other man of our regiment (Co. F.) was burnt in the face by the explosion. These are all the casualties in our regiment. The man who was killed was of the 8th Indiana; shot through the heart.

            Remember me warmly to you son Joseph; and tell him the boys of the company generally are well.
                                                            Yours truly,
                                                                        Edward J. Lewis
                                                                        Capt. Co. C., 33rd Illinois
George's friend, Sgt. Jonathan B. Lott

Joe was deeply worried about his brother, and on Dec. 22nd he sent his reply in his simple style and with his questionable spelling.

Danvers, McLean Co, Ill
Dec 22nd 1863

            We received a letter from Capt. E.J. Lewis stating that you was wounded on the 27th ult. which we was very sorry to hear but hope it is not serious You must not get discouraged & give up but do as Rex told me. Keep a stiff upper lip up & you will come out all right.

            We are all well. I am doing pretty well but I don’t think I will ever be as stout anymore. My side is scarring in and getting smaller. I feel just as well as ever I did till I exercise too much & thn I can’t stand that.

            The weather has been verry cold here for sometime but we had a verry favourable fall. Our school is still progressing. Vick & Johnny are both at school today.

            That package has arrived safely in Bloomington but we have not come after it yet. Pop wants to go up this week.

            I have nothing much to write besides I don’t know whether this will reach you till you are sent north. you must be sure & write as soon as you get this for we will be very uneasy till we hear from you again more especially Johnny Times is verry hard & everything is high. all the Neighbors are well.

            I will be hoping this may find you improving.

            I will write again soon        
                                                            Joseph W. Fifer

George would never see his brother’s encouraging words. Despite assurances of a full recovery, Lt. George H. Fifer died of his wounds on December 26, 1863. Joe was devastated. “I loved him beyond the love of brothers. Everybody thought he was the brains of the family. And so he was. He was everything to me.” Probably nothing else left Joe with as much of a distaste for war as his brother’s death. The thought of his lost brother ate away at him and finally he wrote to a friend serving with the unit.

Hamlin, McLean Co, ILL
Jan 30th 1863 (1864)

Friend Wylie-

            I sit down this morning to answer yours of the 24th which brought the sad news of the death of Bro. George. It was horrible news for us but it is a soldier’s fate and he died in a good cause; I know of no nobler death than to die for one’s country; this is some consolation in our great bereavement.

            Wylie, I have one request to make of you; I want you, if it is possible to place a stone at his head to mark the place. It will be so much better than wood. You could cut his initials on it and then it would be permanent; wood will soon decay and there will be no trace left of his resting place. I wish you would describe the ground on which he is buried- whether it is likely to overflow and whether he was furnished with a coffin how the surgeons examined his lungs, whether they were originally sound- whether a bone worked in his lungs or whether the ball penetrated the cavity of his body and what do you think of bringing him home.

            This is the request of one who loves you as a friend, honors you as a soldier and respects you as a man. You requested me to send you his photograph which I will do at the earliest possible moment.

            Wylie, this is a trying time for us- for with him was buried the pride and hopes of the family.

            We feel convinced that he was well cared for. I know that your noble spirit would make any sacrifice for his welfare for which I tender you the thanks of the family.

            My wound is healed up but my side is very weak. It is shrunk away and drawn in- something like a horse with the swaney. I can stand only very slight exercise. The weather has been very cold but it is quite pleasant now. I must close. Hoping your pathway may be strewn with flowers and that virtue and morality may be the sealing elements of your life, tho time and distance may separate us those feelings will accompany me still.     

                                                            Joseph W. Fifer
                                                                                    write soon
            Father wishes to know whether a metallic coffin could be had and whether the ground is sandy where Geo. is buried and whether the water is likely to rise in the grave. Please excuse all mistakes. My love to all inquiring friends, J.W.F.
Part of Joe's letter to his friend Wylie compliments of Illinois Historical Library

Eventually, Joe received the answers he was seeking, although I’m sure they were very painful to him. As to how his brother died, his friend wrote, “Dr. Rex examined his lungs found the Ball had passed through the lung. His lung was so decayed the Dr’s was surprised that he lived as long as he did.” As to his brother’s burial site, Mr. Wiley replied, “He is buried on very nice prairie. Rolling and never is overflowed. The ground there is very sandy. But when I dug the grave it was apparently as dry down five feet as it was at the top. The grave was near six feet deep. I think no danger at all of the water raising in the grave. It is on the open Prairie But the grave is so deep there is no danger of the body being disturbed. There is a farm House about 50 yards from the grave. There is about 8 or 10 Graves near by.” And as for a coffin, his reply was “We got a very good coffin; under circumstances. Col. Washburn ordered a good coffin made or we could not have done so well.” The coffin was made of wood, but Wiley told Joe that if he really wanted a metal coffin, he would see what he could do to procure one in New Orleans. He promised further to look for a head stone, but there was no stone in the area out of which to fashion one. And finally in response to Joe asking if his brother’s body could be brought home, Wiley advised against it, but assured him he would do whatever Joe asked of him. George’s body was never brought home to Illinois.

That is how a war fought 150 years ago touched my family. Not much different than today, really. A pair of brothers answered the call of duty, they entered the war with wide-eyed enthusiasm and a romantic idea of combat, but they were quickly sobered to the reality of rigorous training, uncomfortable environmental conditions and the moral challenges that come with the taking of a human life. The family was left at home worrying about their sons and brothers and hoping for any snippet of news, whether it be a story in the newspaper or a letter home. In the end, one son would lie dead and buried in the fields of Texas and the other would bear the scars of his injuries for the rest of his life.

Joe would come home from the war wondering what he would do with his life. In his case, he decided to finish his education at Illinois Wesleyan University where he studied law. (While there he turned down an excursion with one of his professors, John Wesley Powell, because of his lingering health issues from the war.  This was the trip in which the one-armed Civil War veteran became the first person to ever make a passage through the Grand Canyon.) Joe wanted to pursue the same vocation as that of a young, skinny lawyer he used to watch come to Bloomington to argue court cases. That young lawyer was Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln, Joe practiced law until he was lured into politics, first becoming State’s Attorney and eventually rising to the office of Governor of Illinois. He would later be appointed to the Interstate Commerce Committee by President McKinley and again reappointed by Theodore Roosevelt. His name would even be bantered about for the presidency itself, but as with the Grand Canyon trip, he again declined due to lingering problems with his health. Although not necessarily realizing the same accomplishments, every soldier returning home from war has been faced with the same choices- should they further their education or seek employment. They try the best they can to readjust to the calmness of home life and to build a family. George Fifer did this during the Revolutionary War and my father did so after WWII. 
Joe Fifer (far right) attending a GAR reunion

        Although today has been set aside to remember these individuals, we stand in thanks each and every day for the enormous sacrifices these individuals have made. They left their youth, their innocence and oftentimes their blood on the fields of battle to insure our security and freedom. May God bless everyone who has ever worn the uniform of their nation and the families who supported them at home.
A distinguished looking Joseph Fifer near the end of his life.

Sources for this blog include “Private Joe” Fifer by James O’Donnell Bennett (1936 Pantograph Printing & Stationery Co., Bloomington, IL)  and the Blue Book of the State of Illinois 1925-1926.  The letters are quoted from the originals held at the Illinois Historical Library, although they may have been moved to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.  Photos of Joe Fifer are courtesy of the Illinois Historical Library.


  1. Scott,

    I missed this when you wrote it a couple of months ago. Fascinating stuff, great research. I will share the story with my son who is a senior at Virginia Tech, and an avid civil war buff. On the drive between Virginia Beach and Blacksburg we often pass through Staunton; I'd imagine that Jennings Gap is named for one of the passes in the mountains to the west. It's beautiful country.

    I also did not know your mother lost her brother in WWII.

    Thanks for sharing the story--

  2. Cousin Scott,
    Such a wonderful compilation of research, facts and documents into the telling of a sad yet serene story of the honor and duty carried out by our loved ones. Well done!