John Wolcott Phelps
Brigadier General, Abolitionist, Presidential Candidate
General Phelps was an author, an ardent abolitionist and presidential candidate. He was born in Guilford, Vermont on November 13, 1813. His parents were Judge John and Lucy (Lovell) Phelps.(1)
He was graduated at the U.S. Military academy and brevetted 2d lieutenant in the 4th artillery, July 1, 1836; was promoted 2d lieutenant, July 28, 1836, and served in the Florida war, 1836-39, and in the Cherokee nation while removing the Indians to the West. He was promoted 1st lieutenant, July 7, 1838; served on the northern frontier during the Canada border disturbances, 1839-40, and at various forts in Michigan, 1840-41; at Fort Monroe, Va., and Carlisle barracks, Pa., 1841-45.
In the war with Mexico, 1846-48, he served in the engagements leading up to the capture of the city of Mexico, and declined the brevet rank of captain, Aug. 20, 1847, for gallantry at Contreras and Churubusco.
He was a member of the board that devised a complete system of instruction for siege, garrison, seacoast and mountain artillery, 1849-50; was promoted captain, March 31, 1850, and served in Texas, 1851-56, where he broke up a filibustering expedition. He was a member of the artillery board at Fort Monroe, Va., 1856-57; served on frontier duty in Kansas and on the Utah expedition to suppress the Mormons, 1857-59, and resigned from the service, Nov. 2, 1859. Until the beginning of the civil war he resided in Brattleboro, Vt., where he wrote forceful articles pointing out the danger of the constantly increasing political influence of the slave states.
In consideration of his character as a man, his having been a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and served as an officer in the regular army in the war with Mexico, John Wolcott Phelps, of Brattleboro, was commissioned by Governor Fairbanks, on the 2d of May, 1861, Colonel of the First Regiment Vermont Volunteers, sent out under the call of President Lincoln for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months' service.
He went to Fortress Monroe with the regiment, and was commander of the post. On the 27th of May, 1861, he was promoted to Brigadier General of United States Volunteers. He went on an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico, in November, 1861, and took military possession of Ship Island, Miss.; was with Commodore Farragut's fleet in forcing the opening of the Lower Mississippi, in April, 1862, and with the naval force taking possession of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, La., April 28, 1862, and of New Orleans, La., May 1, 1862, and organized the first negro troops.
"He was stationed at Carrolton, seven miles from New Orleans, and his camp was literally thronged with black fugitives. General Phelps formed the men of suitable age into companies, and made a requisition on General Butler, who was in command of the Department, for arms for them, saying, that he desired to raise three regiments of Africans for the defense of the point where he was located, which was unhealthy, and his men were dying at the rate of two or three a day. General Butler directed him to employ the contrabands in and about the camp, in cutting down all the trees, &c., for the purpose of defense, and ordered the quartermaster to furnish axes and tents for the contrabands. General Phelps replied that he was willing to organized African regiments for the defense of the Government, but would not become the mere slave-driver, "having no qualification that way," and tendered his resignation, which General Butler refused to accept.
"In August, 1862, General Phelps, with his reasons therefore, returned his commission to the President. Months afterwards, when circumstances compelled the Administration to adopt the very policy proposed by General Phelps, the President offered him a Major General's commission, which he would accept only on condition that it should bear date upon the day of his resignation. To this the President would not accede, as, while it would by only justice to General Phelps, it would be an implied censure of General Butler, whose conduct in the matter was approved by the Administration, though a change of policy became expedient and necessary afterwards.
"By an order of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, dated August 21, 1862, General Phelps was declared an outlaw, for having "organized and armed negro slaves for military service against their masters, citizens of the Confederacy." Black soldiers were condemed as being robbers and criminals, deserving death. Before going into battle, many were warned by their commanders that they would not be taken prisoner if they were forced to surrender, therefore, knowing that they had to fight until death.
"General Phelps was a most accomplished officer. By his constant thoughtfulness of the comfort of his men, and his peculiar mode of enforcing discipline, he was very much respected and beloved by his whole command. On resigning his commission he returned to Brattleboro', where he has since resided, enjoying the confidence and esteem of all who know him."
He translated Lucien de la Hodde's Cradle of Rebellions (1864) from the French, and is the author of Good Behavior, [p.299] text books for schools, adopted in the west (1880) History of Madagascar 1884), and The Fables of Florian (1888). His interest in meteorology is reflected in numerous observations on the weather, winds, cloud formations, and temperature and humidity readings found in his journals.
^ 1 Vermont in the Great Rebellion: Containing Historical and biographical Sketches, etc., by Major Otis F. R. Waite. 1869. pp. 258-261. (Accessed November 2003)
The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Volume IIV, p. 299
Herringshaw's Encyclopedia of American Biography, p. 739