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    Description

    John W. Phelps Autograph Letter Signed. Three pages, 8" x 10", Fort New Smyrna, Florida Territory, January 18, 1839, to his sister, Helen M. Phelps of New York. John Phelps graduated from West Point three years earlier and was assigned to an artillery unit in Florida Territory during the Seminole Wars. In this letter, he writes of his new environment, which included strange animals he had seen on his hunting trips. "The other day I killed what we took to be ducks, but on bringing one of them to Joe, who is gospel in such matters, he pronounced it to be a cormorant, and on opening it, we were sufficiently satisfied of the fact for in its stomach and the duct leading thereto from the mouth, there were thirteen fish rather larger than one's fingers, and yet the bird was not much longer, if any, that the domestic duck. . . . The fish are very abundant . . . and they remain so notwithstanding the great havoc made among them by man, the porpoise, and fishhawk as well as by the cormorants and other kinds of ducks and birds."

    Phelps also writes of his commanding officer, Captain Vinson, who "professes Christianity, and was my faith in the doctrine as strong as it is in his sincerity, conscientiousness, and consequent sterling integrity, I should be as far as faith is concerned a righteous man. I suspect that he was converted thro' the influence of his wife, for he is rather stiff necked."

    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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    September, 2011
    13th-14th Tuesday-Wednesday
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