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    The Mexican War journals of John Phelps

    John W. Phelps Mexican War Journals (7) dated between June 11, 1846, and September 5, 1848, and containing over 800 pages of handwritten text full of keen observations and detailed descriptions of battles, generals, soldiers, south Texas, Mexican culture, and much more. After the Mexican War, John Phelps, a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Seminole War, transcribed his original Mexican War diaries into these seven journals.

    The collection consists of three leather-bound and four hardbound journals. On the cover of one leather-bound journal is written, "Descriptive Book, Company 'A' 4th Artillery." On the first page in the first journal, Phelps has written, "Jottings in Mexico in 1846-7-8 By an Officer. I too, will keep a log - why not?" Throughout the seven journals, Phelps, a colorful, clear, and cogent writer, has filled the pages with readable narratives that read as if written by a journalist. The journals are organized into the following seven stages: "Stage I From Old-Point-Comfort to Point-Isabel"; "Stage II From Point-Isabel to Monterey"; "Stage III From Monterey to Saltillo and thence back to Vera-Cruz"; "Stage IV From Vera-Cruz to Puebla"; "Stage V From Puebla to Mexico [City]"; "Stage VI From Mexico to Toluca"; and "Stage VII From Toluca back to Old Point."

    Phelps' narration begins on June 11, 1846, as he and "a company of Artillery and five ordnance men, in all one hundred and one" sail from Old Point Comfort, Virginia, to Port Isabel, Texas. Upon arriving in Texas, he records his first observations of the U.S. military buildup along the southern Texas coast which included "straggling volunteers with a sprinkling of regulars, horses, provisions going to the camps, etc. etc., a dozen half-naked Mexicans were employed in lading bacon." With a perceptive eye, Phelps records descriptions of new sights and people he encountered in his new environment of Mexico, such as Catholic traditions and practices; Mexican civil government, politics, and elections; leper colonies ("The men were out, sunning themselves; features distorted, livid color, eyebrows gone, fingers and toes shriveled, drawn up and decaying by piece meal"); the heat ("More than two thirds of the men fell out of the ranks on the first days' march, several dying from the heat"); cock fights; Mexican villages and cities; Aztec history and culture; and the Mexican people-including interesting observations on "The Mexican woman" and "The eloquence of a drunken Mexican." Phelps also relates stories of social gatherings and parties while in Mexico, often recording conversations. At one point he gives a detailed description lasting several pages of a bull fight. "[The matador] took a sword in one hand and a red cloth in the other. . . . At length he plunged the sword deep into a sensitive point; it escaped from his hand, the bull tossing his head to one side to strike at it. . . . Three bulls were bated in this way, with nearly the same incidents - an unmitigatedly barbarous spectacle."

    Phelps also includes descriptions of people, places, and events related to the U.S. military, such as hospitals; officers' funerals; and movements of U.S. and Mexican troops. He describes various generals and officers, such as William Worth, William Bliss, and Jefferson Davis ("Col. Davis' Mississippi regiment have been trying their governments rifles to see how they will work"). Phelps served under General Zachary Taylor, and, later, General Winfield Scott, and he records evenings spent in the company of the two generals.

    But Phelps writes that nothing had struck him "more forcibly than the military spirit displayed by our volunteers. Where there is one worthless man among them there are at least three who, at home, are man of character and property. They play the part of soldiers well." He writes of regiments of volunteers from numerous U.S. states, including Louisiana, Massachusetts, Indiana, New York, Tennessee, and more. He recounts many stories about Texas volunteers, including the regiment under the command of James Henderson. Phelps also records observations of Colonel John Coffee Hays' Texas Rangers in battle. Phelps gives thorough descriptions of other battles from his viewpoint as an artillery officer. For example, he uses many pages to describe the Battle of Monterey ("The ground was pretty well sprinkled with their dead. . . . We had now an opportunity to look about us, and what a sight was there! And there lay Monterey, surrounded by its thousand fertile fields thro' which the San Juan littered along").

    On September 16, 1847, as the war neared its end, the U.S. artillery officer writes in his journal from the "'Halls of Montezumas' / National palace of Mexico," only days after the decisive Battle of Chapultepec, which he also describes. Over several pages, he reports vivid details of the battle, including a violent incident in which an American sutler "offered his hand to a Mexican. The Mexican, right in the presence of our troops, struck at him like a flash with his dagger, severed a jugular, and the stalwart baker bled to death. An Infantry soldier immediately pinned the Mexican to a wall with his bayonet; and there the Mexican writhed until the bayonet was broken off."

    Following Santa Anna's surrender, Phelps observes on April 9, 1848, that the Mexican general was "on his way towards Vera-Cruz to embark for Jamaica. Our officers at Jalapa furnished him with an escort and shewed him other attentions with which, the papers say, he appeared to be highly pleased." Then finally on May 27, 1848, almost two years after the war began, Phelps happily records that "The treaty has been ratified by the Senate by a vote of thirty three against four; and we have orders to commence the march homeward." Phelps journeyed home, sailing around Florida and traveling the last leg of his journey aboard a train. He closes his journals in a pensive mood on September 26, 1848, writing that "the strifes of war are forgotten, as if all the events here recorded were but the incidents of a morning dream. The End."

    Because he transcribed his original Mexican War journals into these seven volumes, Phelps' writing style is much clearer, more legible, and more polished than in his later Utah War diaries (see 6057-048-001) and Civil War journal entries (see 6057-048-002). Because those were not transcribed, they remain coarse and unpolished. All seven journals have been well cared for and measure about 9" x 12.5". Covers are worn with some stains, but none have detached. Pages are toned and still bound. Each page has been numbered in the top right corner, and an index of major topics is included. These journals contain historically important information and demand further research.

    Accompanying the journals is a four-page letter to Phelps from his younger brother, Charles E. Phelps, dated July 1, 1859, from Baltimore with details of the Second Italian War of Independence.

    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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