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    John W. Phelps Autograph Letter. Three pages, 8" x 10", "Camp on the Outhlacooche [Withlacoochee River, Florida]," January 16, 1837, to his sister, Helen M. Phelps of New York. In this engaging letter, Phelps, a future abolitionist, writes of a runaway slave, the Dade Massacre, Seminole leadership, and Indian allies to the U.S. military. Toned with some darker toning along some folds. Smoothed folds.

    Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Southern slaves increasingly fled to the Seminoles in the Florida Territory, who were at war with the U.S. In this letter, Phelps gives an account of an American general's slave who ran away and was discovered living among Seminoles. Interestingly, they were in possession of weapons taken from the Dade Massacre of December 1835 where Seminole warriors almost completely wiped out a U.S. detachment of 110 soldiers. "We have been in the field actively engaged since the date of my last, wading thro' mud and water. Maj. Morris (commandant of the Creeks) had been stirring the country before we arrived and Sent in several negroes among which was Primis[?] a slave of Gen. Church's[?] who was sent on an express last winter with the promise of a large reward if he did as told; but he never returned. He is obstinate and surly - no information can be obtained from him. Among the rest he was found encamped in a large hammock having several muskets and two swords which were taken at Dades massacre. Provisions they had in abundance, fish, chickens, corn, and so forth. He is now led about by a Sentinel. Day before yesterday we struck upon a trail and after following it into a large and very muddy hammock we found several palmetto huts which appeared of very recent structure, bones, orange peels, pieces of peltry and other sundries were scattered about. We destroyed two canoes and had not proceeded far when a dog barked and immediately a papoose squalled - the troops were extended in skirmishing order and the Creeks Sent to reconnoiter. But the enemy had escaped, leaving a boy of about ten and little sister of half his years. The Creeks ascertained the direction taken by the fugitives, and rushed on in pursuit when they discovered an old Squaw and brought her to a halt by discharging their rifles. But when they came up She said she was indisposed and did not wish to see the white men. . . . Then gloriously ended the day, leaving us the gallant captors of two papooses, one dog, a white horse, three head of cattle and the destroyers of two canoes." Phelps describes the two small children as "very interesting. . . . The boy . . . is very Asiatic in his features."

    Concerning Seminole leadership, Phelps writes, "It is probable that the war will not be terminated at once, but will be brought to an end by degrees. The troops now are subsisting in a great measure upon the enemy. . . . But Should we subject Oseola, we have only begun for in the neighborhood of Black Creek and South there are Chiefs equally hostile and powerful - such as Jumper, Micandopy, Philip &c. The country laying along the banks of the Outhlacooche is truly delightful. . . . It is not at all astonishing that the Seminole clings to it with desperation."

    Concerning the military's allies, the Creek, the officer writes, "When we were coming out we met the Creek returning. . . . They are a very interesting people, and quite inoffensive. . . . Their term of service expires this month. We shall feel the want of them for tho' they are useless in battle, by scouting they harras the enemy very much."

    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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