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    General John Phelps marches into New Orleans

    John W. Phelps Civil War Journal Entries dated May 3 [1862] and May 4, 1862. Seven pages, 5" x 8", unsigned. Union General Phelps, an abolitionist from Vermont, records in these two entries from his diary observations beginning with the events from May 1, the day New Orleans fell to the Union and he rode into the city.

    In these journal entries, Phelps mentions both General Benjamin Butler and Commodore David Farragut as he gives an account of the condition of New Orleans while the Union army takes possession - without resistance - of particular locations in the city, such as the unfinished Custom House. Phelps also writes of subsequent reconnaissance missions up the Mississippi River.

    On May 1, 1862, General Butler and 5,000 Union soldiers marched into New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy. General Phelps, who had been serving under Butler in the Department of the Gulf since November 1861 and had been supporting Commodore Farragut's fleet, entered the city with Butler and the rest of his troops on May 1.

    "Arrived at our anchorage New Orleans . . . and seeing the 12th Connecticut forming on the Levee I went to the Customs House Generals Butler and Williams had just arrived there with two or three regiments and several pieces of Artillery. . . . The 12th, it appears, had been order[ed] to the Custom House, but I obtained the general's consent to have it remain upon the levee, as the occupation of two points was better than one. . . . [The 12th Conn.] slept upon a wharf. The next day it took possession of a cotton press and then of the City Hall."

    Phelps then describes New Orleans.

    "The town presents a gloomy aspect; hardly a dozen vessels along its wharves of all kinds, some of its wharves burnt, apparantly by burning cotton on them; stores all shut, nothing on the wharves streets dirty and nothing doing. The city presents an aspect fully due to that fierce barbarous spirit which it has so long manifested - a spirit better fitting a tribe of isolated Comanches, than so large an exporting city as New Orleans. The people are afraid of each other. . . . Commodore Farragut sent the Brookline up the River yesterday after-noon."

    Phelps also includes accounts of a U.S. naval ship - the Rhode Island - running aground as it sailed for "Texas with her Navy mail"; General Butler's proclamation of May 4; his own complaints about the Picayune's "notices of Lodge Meetings" (Phelps blamed these secret societies for bringing "the entire country to this war"); and reconnaissance missions up the Mississippi River. Only weeks later, General Phelps made one of the earliest attempts to organize and arm fugitive slaves into Union regiments. His efforts, however, were thwarted by General Butler.

    Phelps' writing style is much rawer and coarser in these entries than in his earlier Mexican War journals, which he later polished and rewrote in seven bound volumes (see lot 6057-048-011). Both journals differ in style from his Utah War diaries (see 6057-048-001), which were not polished and include more scientific information. The seven pages offered in this lot exhibit heavy foxing around some margins. Some corners are dog eared. The text is written in pencil on lined paper and is easily read.

    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
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 3
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