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    John W. Phelps Autograph Letter Signed. Three and one-half pages, 8" x 10", Fort Heileman [Florida], August 15, 1837. One year after graduating from West Point, Lieut. Phelps writes this letter to his sister, Helen M. Phelps of New York. Toned with some discoloration due to dampstaining. A small amount of text has been lost from the final page due to the opening of the original seal.

    From Fort Heileman, a supply depot for the U.S. Army during the Seminole War, Phelps tries to convince his sister to take more recreation in New York. "One of the greatest pleasures of life is variety, and altho' the Jewish institutions were not framed expressly for the production of this, yet they furnish it. . . . The austerity with which the Jews observed the Sabbath remaining almost motionless throughout the day & must have undoubtedly proved irksome, but at the same time it imparted a zest for entering on the occupations of the week."

    Informing Miss Phelps that he has preserved some items from a Seminole woman's burial site, the young officer offers his observations of Seminole burial practices. "She was deposited in a crib made after the fashion of a log house, and covered with a roof of bark. From the things that were found with her, it is presumed that she must have been a lady of quality." He then describes other items buried with her. "Under her head was a little bag containing needles and thread, and the flint and steel. . . . That's where she fits it out for her journey thro' the dismal hammocks of death to the pleasures of the Elysian hunting grounds. . . . What a vague and unsophisticated religion is this! . . . Reason, howmuchsoever she may be exercised by the red man, and especially the Seminole, and ordinary concerns, certainly never used her pruning hook here. Whenever the Seminole witnesses of the ills to which humanity is heir, such as sickness, natural death, lunacy, deformity, he is lost in mystery -- there are dispensations of the Great Spirit which he does not comprehend."

    Concerning the Seminole War, Phelps writes that "The news that we are continually hearing induced us to believe that there will be no more fighting. The Seminoles have thus far acted to consistently with international law to make us believe otherwise than that they will remain true to their pledges faith, and if they do, the Miccosukee's, altho' the largest party, will see the rashness of prolonging the war. . . . There are now a hundred Indians at Fort King and several chiefs at Tampa. . . . Gen. [Thomas] Jesup is now here. The Secretary of War has granted him a thousand northern Indians -- 3 Creeks cut their throats at Tampa, out of nostalgia. The Indians granted are Shawnees, Sacs and Foxes, Kikapoos and Delewares."

    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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    Auction Dates
    September, 2011
    13th-14th Tuesday-Wednesday
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