John Smith Phelps was born in Sinsbury, Hartford County, Connecticutt on December 22, 1814. He graduated from Trinity College and was admitted to the bar in 1835. Soon after, the Phelps family moved to Springfield in Greene County, Missouri. Mr. Phelps married Mary Whitney and together they would have five children. They were John Elisha, Thomas Benton, Lucy Jane, Mary Ann, and another daughter named Lucy. Only two of these children would survive into adulthood, John and Mary.
John Phelps was involved in state politics and a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served until March 3, 1863. When the Civil War broke out, he decided to not run for renomination in 1862. The Civil War came quickly to Southwest Missouri. On August 10, 1861, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek took place south of Springfield. It was a Confederate victory and the Union Army withdrew back into Springfield. Mary Phelps cared for the body of Union General Nathaniel Lyon ,who was killed in the battle, and did so to make sure it was secure. Her husband and the other men of the area got together to defend their homes. They formed a Six Months Regiment of Volunteers. After first enlisting as a private in Captain Coleman’s Company of Missouri infantry, Phelps rose through the ranks quickly and became it’s leader. On October 2, 1861, he was made Lt. Colonel of Phelps’ Regiment Missouri Infantry and Colonel in December. His first battle was at Elkhorn Tavern, also called Pea Ridge, on March 7 and 8, 1862. Colonel Phelps was slightly wounded from a shell. He was given a leave of absence on April 3, 1862 and mustered out on May 13th. John Phelps then returned to Washington as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Monument to John S. Phelps and his wife at their old home site near Springfield, MO.
On July 13, 1862, John Phelps was appointed the military governor of Arkansas. Secretary of War Edward Stanton telegraphed the following message to him about his new role:
“The purpose of your appointment is to re-establish the authority of the federal government in the State of Arkansas and to provide the means of maintaining peace and security to the loyal inhabitants of the state, until they shall be able to establish a civil government. Upon your wisdom and energetic action much will depend on accomplishing that result. It is not deemed necessary to give any specific instructions, but rather to confide in your sound discretion to adopt such measures as circumstances may demand. Specific instructions will be given when requested. You may rely upon the perfect confidence and full support of the department in the performance of your duties.”
Military Governor John S. Phelps
Governor Phelps telegraphed Major General Curtis on August 6, 1862 that he would soon be joining him at Helena. This was really the only part of Arkansas completely under Union control at that time. After the Battle of Pea Ridge, Curtis had moved his army to Batesville in Independence County instead of Little Rock. This was because he had doubts about his supply line. He then marched across Arkansas to the river port of Helena in Phillips County. As the Army of Southwest moved across the state, hundreds of pro-Union white southerners joined his force. Thousands of slaves also flocked to the army in search of freedom. On July 12, 1862, the Union army marched into Helena and occupied the town. General Curtis quickly began to organize his new recruits and set the freedmen to work constructing defenses around the city. By the end of July, there were two new military organizations at the city of Helena. They were the 1st Arkansas Infantry Battalion and the 1st Arkansas Mounted Rangers.
General Samuel Curtis
General Samuel Curtis also began to enforce a new plan of action around Phillips County that would become controversial. The Second Confiscation Act had been passed by Congress on July 17, 1862 which authorized the confiscation of the property of persons in rebellion against the United States. This act allowed the freeing of slaves as contraband of war, and permitted the seizure of real property. The plantation lease system soon followed. Under this system, abandoned plantations were leased to Freedmen for no rent. In this manner, the farms continued to be worked and cotton to be produced. It wasn’t long before Helena was once again a thriving cotton port. Unfortunately, this system also led to corruption and some Union officers began to prosper because of it.
This was the state of the Federal Military Base at Helena when Governor John Smith Phelps made his entry. It would not take long for Governor Phelps and General Curtis to disagree on things. To Phelps ,there were four problems. First, he disagreed with Curtis on the Plantation Lease System. Being a Democrat, he was opposed to General Curtis giving out freedom papers to former slaves and allowing them to work lands that they did not own. Second, he was not happy about the military plans that General Curtis had for the army. Phelps wanted him to move away from Helena and march toward Little Rock because he felt more Union loyal men would come to the cause if they could. He also realized that his authority was limited by remaining in Helena. Third, having the army in such an unhealthy place was not good on the morale and health of the men. Hundreds were sick and dying. Fourth, Governor Phelps was not pleased with the officers General Curtis had put in charge of the Arkansas volunteers. Lt. Colonel John C. Bundy was the commander of the 1st Arkansas Infantry Battalion. He had been promoted from 2nd Lieutenant in the 15th Illinois Cavalry to Lt. Colonel. Bundy was extremely unpopular with his men who viewed him as an outsider. In addition to that fact, the men of the 1st Arkansas were angry because many of them thought they would be used as mounted infantry. Since their arrival in Helena, that had not happened and many of their animals had died. The 1st Arkansas Mounted Rangers had managed to organize two full companies and were in the process of creating a third under the command of Colonel W. James Morgan. Morgan had been a grocer from Brunswick, Missouri before the war and became Colonel of the 18th Missouri Infantry at the outset of the war. On December 16, 1861, he had ordered the burning of much of Platte City, Missouri after attempting to capture a Rebel leader named Silas M. Gordon. Morgan also had two captured Confederates killed as revenge against Gordon for the murder of two captured Federal soldiers. Once in Helena, Colonel Morgan handed out several officer commissions to men to help him organize his new command. They recruited from both Helena and Hopefield in Crittenden County. The 1st Arkansas Mounted Rangers were not that disciplined either.
Governor Phelps wrote the following letter to Major General H.W. Halleck on August 17, 1862 from Saint Louis, Missouri:
It is reported by both officers and men who have arrived in this city from the army in Arkansas that large quanties of cotton have been seized by individuals and shipped on their own account to Cairo and to this city. In some instances the cotton has been obtained from negroes by purchase; in some cases purchased of citizens.
I am also informed some of the cotton has been sold on Government account at Helena at 14 cents per pound and the same cotton has afterward been sold in this city at from 40 to 46 cents per pound.
I have the honor to suggest all cotton, as well as mules and horses, should be seized on Government account; that the cotton shall be shipped to this city for sale; that accounts shall be kept of the persons from whom they and where taken, leaving to loyal citizens, if any there be, an opportunity hereafter to apply for the proceeds of the cotton.
It appears to me there is no other course but the one I have suggested. If speculators, hangers-on of the army, or others permitted, under the protection of the army, to seize and carry away cotton, the Government bears the odium, if any there shall be arising from the transaction, without deriving the least benefit therefrom. Again, the speculation tends to demoralize the army.
I shall leave by the first boat for Helena probably to-morrow; have been detained here by business and awaiting the arrival of a gentleman who will accompany me.
Within a few days after this letter, Governor Phelps arrived at Helena and he soon began to complain about the situation. At the end of August, General Curtis took a one month leave of absence and traveled to Chicago. He served as the president of the Pacific Railroad Convention from August 29 to September 24, 1862 which worked on the proposed transcontinental railway. On September 19th, the U.S. War Department reorganized the Trans-Mississippi and General Curtis was promoted to be the new commander of the new Department of Missouri consisting of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and the bordering Indian Territories. Major General Franklin Steele took over as commander at Helena.
Governor Phelps wrote another letter to General Halleck on September 28, 1862 from Helena about the situation at that city:
From Saint Louis, under date of August 17, I wrote you, stating the rumors in relation to the seizure of cotton and the speculations in that article, in which it was said officers of high rank were engaged. Such rumors are current here in relation to the conduct of some fo the officers, and the late commander of this Army of the Southwest is not exempt from such charges. I have not investigated these rumors. The army was much demoralized in its march form Batesville to this point and whilst lying her. In my letter I suggested the cause I deemed expedient in relation to cotton, and time has satisfied me I was right in those suggestions.
Much property has been taken from the citizens in this vicinity and but little of it has been accounted for to the Government. Horses and mules are owned by private soldiers in the army not doing duty on horseback which were taken form citizens, and they justify their conduct by that of their officers.
When I reached here I urged on General Curtis a movement on Little Rock, but he declined to make it. The command of the army devolved on General Steele, who is exempt form the rumors to which I have referred. He found the army deficient in many supplies such as he deemed necessary. These have been obtained and he now proposes a move.
This town is filled with contrabands, who have been forcibly in many instances brought from their plantations- men, women, and children. Much sickness and mortality prevails among them.
A fort was commenced by General Curtis at this place, which the engineer in charge thinks will be of no service, and I suppose was commenced in order to give employment to the slaves. One gunboat in the river near the town will be of more service than this fort. there are two if not three hills in the vicinity which command the hill on which the fort is located……… The letter continues on for some time after this.
General Steele began to bring order to disorder after he took command. A number of officers and men pretending to be officers were arrested or forced out. He began to send out more patrols and expeditions. Sickness continued to be a problem in late 1862 and many officers and men died in the overcrowded hospitals. General Steele also made many of the refugees leave the city limits of Helena in an attempt to protect and build up his supplies. On August 7th, Lieutenant Colonel John Bundy took a leave of absence. Then on October 1, 1862, he asked to be relieved because of ill health. On October 7th, General Steele was transferred to the Army of Tennessee. He was replaced by Brigadier General Eugene Carr who was then transferred to the Army of Tennessee on November 12th. He was replaced by Major General Willis Gorman.
The 1st Battalion was moved to Saint Louis for duty at Benton Barracks that month and mustered out December 31, 1862. They had lost over a hundred men to sickness while at Helena. The 1st Arkansas Mounted Rangers also were dissolved and reorganized as the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry. Morgan was the next to go and Governor Phelps received the following letter from Washington D.C. concerning what to do with the Colonel.
War Department , Adjutant General’s Office, Washington, D.C. November 18, 1862
Honorable J.S. Phelps, Military Governor of Arkansas. Helena, Arkansas
By Directions of the Secretary of War, I enclose, herewith a copy of the order dismissing Colonel W. James Morgan from the service and revoking his authority to raise troops with the regiment that you will deliver it to him. The men recruited by him and mustered into the service will be used as independent companies, or transferred to another organization as the interests of the service may demand. All officers not appointed in strict conformity to the written authorization under which Colonel Morgan acted, will be promptly mustered out of service in view of which you will make report of their names to the immediate General in command.
Very Respectfully Your obedient servant. Thomas M. Vincent Assistant Adjutant General
Like many of the men at Helena, Governor Phelps was sick much of the time and forced to stay in Saint Louis so he could recover. Arkansas remained on the back burner as the nation’s attention was turned to actions elsewhere. Most of the Union Army along the Mississippi River were engaged in the fight against Vicksburg and the men at Helena continued in their various excursions into the country side in both Mississippi and Arkansas. While this was going on, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863 and soon thousands of African Americans were joining the Union Army around the United States. In February 1863, the Yazoo Pass Expedition was launched into the Mississippi Delta. That attempt to bypass Vicksburg would end in disappointment at Fort Pemberton and be back in Helena by April 14th.
General Benjamin Prentiss, of Shiloh fame, was promoted to major general and given command of the District of Eastern Arkansas with his headquarters at Helena on March 13, 1863. Once there, he further strengthened his forces and position. On May 1, 1863 the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment of African Descent were organized at Helena. Five days later, they were ordered to move to Lake Providence, Louisiana. The Second Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment of African Descent was organized about the same time at Helena. Companies A and B of the Second Arkansas Cavalry at Helena were consolidated into Company B and ordered to report to Saint Louis where Governor Phelps was staying. On July 4, 1863 the Battle of Helena took place and Vicksburg fell. Soon the attention of the nation would move from the Mississippi River to points East, but the Civil War continued.
On July 17th, Governor Phelps received a letter from the War Department dated July 9, 1863 from the Assistant Adjutant General E. Townsend.
The appointment of John S. Phelps, as military governor of the State of Arkansas and of Amos F. Eno, as Secretary, be revoked and the office of military Governor in said state be abolished.
Governor Phelps returned home to Springfield and served as Colonel of the 72nd Enrolled Missouri Militia. He participated in the campaign against General Sterling Price in Southwest Missouri. After the war, he first ran for Governor in 1868, but lost. Undaunted, Phelps ran again and was elected Governor of Missouri in 1876. John Smith Phelps died on November 20, 1886 and is buried in Hazelwood Cemetery in Springfield.
Phelps, John Smith- Biographical Information: bioguide.congress.gov
House Documents: Volume 247, USA House of Representatives 1868. pp 733 and 734.
Dougan, Michael B.-John Smith Phelps: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Jonesboro, Arkansas
Clements, Derek Allen- Samuel Ryan Curtis: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Pocahontas, Arkansas
Taylor, Michael W.- Battle of Helena: The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Albemarle, North Carolina
Official Records of the War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXV, pp 577, 683, 684, 685
Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers who Served in the Organization from the State of Arkansas: National Archives Microfilm Publication, First Battalion Infantry, Washington 1962.
Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers who Served in the Organization from the State of Arkansas: National Archives Microfilm Publication, Second Arkansas Cavalry, Washington 1962.
1. John Smith Phelps – Phelps Homesite – Springfield, http://www.waymarkin.com
2. The Civil War Muse – Historical Marker: Fort Curtis, http://thecivilwarmuse.com
3. April 1864 | Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri – Kansas, http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org
4. December 20, 1862, http://mkwe.com ( View of Helena,Arkansas- Federal troops in foreground, during the Civil War.
5. Helena, Arkansas, during the Civil War: The United States flag in the background, https://www.pinterest.com
6. Mary Whitney Phelps Marker Dedication Photo Gallery, http://duvmissouritent22.org
Featured Image: Cotton Speculation in Arkansas, 1862: An investigation, http://www.blog4history.com