John Smith Phelps

John Smith Phelps, Congressman and governor of Missouri, is celebrated for his political acumen rather than for the brief period during which he occupied the rank of brigadier general of United States volunteers. He was born in Simsbury, Connecticut, on December 22, 1814; was educated at what is now Trinity College in Hartford; studied law and was admitted to the bar. In 1838 Phelps moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he at once became not only financially successful but politically prominent. In 1844 he was elected to Congress, where he served continuously for eighteen years; he might have been speaker of the house in the late 1850's were it not for his Northern birth and his Union political convictions. Among his legislative achievements was the passage of the bill which introduced the three-cent stamp for first-class letter postage. Upon the outbreak of Civil War Phelps went home to Springfield and recruited "Colonel Phelps' Regiment," a six-month command which he led at the battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, in March, 1862. In July of that year President Lincoln appointed him military governor of Arkansas, and he was made brigadier general of volunteers on November 29 to rank from July 19. This appointment expired by law, however, on March 4, 1863, for lack of confirmation by the Senate. Prior to this time Phelps was addressed as and referred to as "Honorable John S. Phelps, Military Governor of Arkansas," rather than by his military title. He resumed his law practice in 1864 and ran as a Democratic candidate for governor of Missouri in 1868, but was defeated mainly because of the wholesale proscription of Southern sympathizers under Missouri's recently adopted "Drake constitution." Eight years later, when the franchise had been substantially liberalized, Phelps unified the Northern and Southern factions of the party and was elected by a commanding majority. As his term ended four years later, the St. Louis Globe Democrat remarked on January 12, 1881, that "it will hardly be disputed that Missouri never had a better governor than John S. Phelps." Governor Phelps returned again to his law practice; he died in St. Louis on November 20, 1886. He was buried in Hazelwood Cemetery, Springfield, Missouri.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.