Jesse J. Phillips was born in Montgomery County IL, on May 22, 1837. His parents had been some of Montgomery County’s pioneers after moving from Kentucky. Phillips spent all of his young adult life in Montgomery County, and attended public school there. He received a liberal education at the Hillsboro Academy, and after he graduated in 1857 he decided to pursue a career in law. He studied law at the law offices of Davis and Kingsbury and was admitted into the bar in 1861. He had only practiced law for a year when the outbreak of the Civil War called him to military duty.
In many ways, Phillips later successes in the legal field can be attributed to the popularity he earned during his involvement in the Civil War. When President Lincoln first called for 75,000 troops in the spring of 1961, Phillips helped raise a company of troops and was elected captain. When the 9th Illinois Infantry Regiment was formed, Phillips was elected its major.
For the first three months of service, the 9th regiment mainly had garrison duty. It was then disbanded and reformed. It saw its share of combat, and after a number of particularly bloody battles, became known as “The Bloody Ninth.” Phillips remained Major of the company, but was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on December 2, 1861. His first battle as Lt. Colonel was an attack on Fort Henry.
Phillips became famous for leading charges on enemy troops on horseback, and on three separate occasions his horse was shot out from under him. He was a powerfully built man, and his thick dark hair, which he wore at shoulders length, would flow behind him as he charged into battle, creating an inspiring image for soldiers. In the battle of Fort Donelson, Philips’ horse was shot out from under him while leading a bayonet charge. In this battle, out of the “Bloody Ninth’s” 600 men, 35 were killed and 160 wounded. After the battle, General Grant publicly acknowledged the bravery of Phillips for leading the charge.
Phillips was also part of the famous battle of Shiloh which took place on April 6, 1862. In this battle the Ninth lost over half of its men. Out of the regiment’s 570 men, 61 were killed and 287 men were wounded. In this battle, Phillips horse was shot three times before falling. Phillips also was shot three times, once through the hand, and twice through the thigh.
In May of 1864, the Ninth was part of an attack against the Confederate Army in Tennessee. In this campaign, at the battle of Resaca, Phillips had his third horse shot-out from under him, and was also shot in the ankle. Although Phillips resigned on September 1, 1864, he was later promoted to Brigadier General for his bravery in battle.
After the war Phillips returned to his home and law practice in Hillsboro, IL. After a successful career as a lawyer, he was elected to be a circuit court judge in 1879, and was re-elected in 1885. In 1890, he was appointed to be a judge of the appellate court in the Fourth District. After the death of Judge Scholfield in the Illinois Supreme Court, Phillips was elected to fill the vacancy in 1893, and was re-elected in 1897. On June 3rd of the same year he was chosen to be Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court by his colleagues on the Supreme Court.
Justice Phillips owed much of his success to the “Soldiers Vote.” His distinction in the war made him extremely popular among veterans. He was an avid Democrat, and ran for State Treasurer unsuccessfully under the Democratic ticket in 1866 and 1888.
On the bench, Phillips was known for his passion and love for argument. Very much a solider at heart, friends said of Phillips that he “loved a good fight.” He was particularly determined about fighting against trusts and monopolies. Phillip’s health was failing for several months prior to his death, and on several occasions the doctors felt like he would die, but he always rallied himself back to relative health. Jesse J. Phillips finally passed away in his home on February 16th, 1901.
Next: John Scholfield
- “Jesse J. Phillips Dead.” The Chicago Daily. Feb 16, 1901, p. 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849-1885). Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
- “Death of Justice Phillips.”Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 17, 1901, p. 38. ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune(1849-1885). Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
- “Justice Phillips Near Death.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Mar. 3, 1900, p. 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849-1885). Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.