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    John W. Phelps Autograph Letter Signed. Three and one-half pages, 8" x 10", Fort New Smyrna [Florida Territory], December 17, 1838, to his sister, Helen Phelps of New York, relating military matters during the Seminole War.

    Following a steamer boat wreck, First Lieutenant Phelps writes that his arrival at Fort New Smyrna "was a joyful occurrence. There was a princely mansion here before the [Seminole] War owned by Mr. Dunham. Among its out-buildings were two ovens, and two large two story kitchens and one of which we, Capt. Brown, Dr. De Leon and myself are located . . . indicating a woful degeneracy in the current state of military affairs. On one window stool are two skulls which were taken from the five found not far hence supposed from papers found with them to have been of persons should shipwrecked about two months ago and subsequently killed by the Indians. The papers related chiefly to the affairs of Charles Sage of the state of New York who had been engaged in the Texian revolution."

    Phelps also writes more of the Indians ("lovers of rum as they are") and the locations of other soldiers throughout the mansion grounds. He ends the letter by reporting on the ongoing Seminole War. "The war to all appearances is as likely to be continued as ever. But at present I do not feel as though I were much concerned about it, our Genl. is constructing roads, and agreeably I do not consider it much amiss to be hunting deer, mine is as much a military occupation as his."

    Phelps wrote this letter two years after graduating from West Point. Toned paper with smoothed folds. Remnants of the red seal still exist on the address panel. A tear exists in the center of the final page, due to the original breaking of the seal. Also on the address panel is an early postmark from Savannah, Georgia.

    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.

    Auction Info

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