Description

    John W. Phelps Autograph Letter Signed. Two and one-half pages, 8" x 10", Fort Heileman, Florida Territory, October 18, 1838, to his sister, Helen M. Phelps of New York. Two years after graduating from West Point, First Lieutenant Phelps writes of the Seminole War in Florida. Only ten months earlier, General Zachary Taylor and his troops defeated a much smaller band of Seminoles at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee. This letter reads in part as written:

    "We are to commence operations even in the same direction, viz by the way of Fort Mellon into the interior of the country towards Lake Tohopekaliga; as far from civilized life, you will see by the map, as we can get. The transition from Broad Way to Tohopekaliga will change the state of our affairs, I imagine very materially. Four companies of the Regiment which embarked in the Steamer New York, arrived here on the 9th inst. after a four days passage, and they are already at Fort Mellon. They are with the remaining six that came in the Ship West Chester will soon be scattered almost to the extremes of the Territory. There are some Indians at Tampa Bay and Gen. Taylor, it is said, is sanguine that there professions of wishing to surcease are in good faith, but since their hostile proceedings during the past summer and burning our works, It would appear that they are only at their wonted policy of delaying our movements as long as possible. Gen. Taylor, however in theory, places no confidence in him, and he carries on an odd kind of warfare, fighting and negotiating at the same time. It is the object then of the Genl to re-occupy all the ports as soon as possible, and we shall then see, when they find their policy of no avail whether they will go, or prepare for another campaign. For my part, I have long since learned concerning this people not to deceive myself even by hazarding a conjecture. It is possible that when they find us at our ports again, they will out of mere vexation and spite resolve upon maintaining their ground another year. It is possible that Coacooche, if he ruled the sentiment of the nation as some say he does, may on some fine day to gratify his whimsical ambition, cause a general surrender much to our astonishment and his own elevation. It is possible -- in fine -- nothing is probable -- and this is generally the sum of all speculations upon the Seminole War."

    Toned paper with smoothed folds. Remnants of the red seal still exist on the address panel. A hole, with a small loss of text, exists on page three, due to the original breaking of the seal. Also on the address panel is an early postmark from Augustine, Florida Territory.


    More Information:

    John Wolcott Phelps (1813-1885) was born and died in Guilford, Vermont. In the seventy-two years between those events, he not only witnessed change, he also worked and sacrificed to create it. Following his 1836 graduation from the U.S. Military Academy, Lieutenant Phelps was given command of an artillery regiment and ordered to Florida Territory to take part in the Seminole War. He later served throughout the Mexican War under Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. In the late 1850s, Phelps was a member of the Utah Expedition. That expedition, the largest U.S. military exercise between the Mexican and Civil Wars, was sent to Utah to suppress a possible revolt from the state's large Mormon population.

     

    At the outbreak of the Civil War, Phelps, an abolitionist, was quickly promoted to brigadier general and, while serving under General Benjamin Butler in early 1862, was instrumental in the capture of New Orleans and its environs. He was soon stationed seven miles outside the Southern city at Camp Parapet, which quickly became a refuge for fugitive slaves. After large numbers of slaves had arrived, Phelps organized the men into three regiments, drilled them, and asked General Butler to supply them with 3,000 muskets, 225 swords. Butler refused and ordered Phelps to enlist the fugitives in manual work, but Phelps refused and remained adamant in pressing the U.S. military into using former slaves as soldiers, not as unskilled labor. After Butler failed to act, Phelps resigned in disgust on August 21, 1862, the same day the Confederate government declared him an outlaw for his actions.

     

    But thanks to Phelps' efforts and the course of the war, changes came quickly. Over the remaining months of 1862, President Lincoln's thinking -- propelled forward by men like Phelps -- changed so much that in his January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, he not only freed Southern slaves, but he also made known intentions to enlist those freedmen in the U.S. military. Two years later in the spring of 1865, 179,000 black men were serving in the U.S. military.

     

    Following his resignation, John Phelps retired to his Vermont home. In the 1880 presidential election, the American Party nominated the sixty-seven-year-old veteran, whose platform included justice for American Indians.

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