John Wolcott Phelps

John Wolcott Phelps, who seems to have made a career of espousing either the right cause at the wrong time or vice versa, was born November 13, 1813, at Guilford, Vermont. After attending local schools, he was appointed to West Point in 1832 and was graduated in 1836. He took part in the Florida War of 1836-39 against the Creeks and Seminoles; was on duty on the Canadian frontier during the border disturbances; and served at a number of garrison posts. He participated in the Mexican War and declined (for reasons not specified) the brevet commission of captain for his services, perhaps the only man ever to do so. After a decade of further service on the Indian frontier he resigned in 1859 and devoted the next two years to inveighing in print against the institution of slavery and the Masonic orderóboth of which he abhorred with the zeal of a Crusader. He became colonel of the 1st Vermont on May 9, 1861, and brigadier general of volunteers on August 9, to rank from May 17. Phelps's regiment took and held Newport News for the defense of Hampton Roads and then was transferred to the Department of the Gulf under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler. Phelps commanded at Ship Island, the rendezvous for the Union army forces collected to force the opening of the Lower Mississippi. Subsequently, while in garrison at Camp Parapet on the outskirts of New Orleans, he organized the first Negro troops, an action promptly disavowed by the administration. He resigned in disgust on August 21, 1862, the same day that the Confederate government declared him an outlaw for having "organized and armed Negro slaves for military service against their masters. . . ." When the United States government finally came to a determination to enlist Negroes, it is said that Phelps declined a commission as a major general to command colored troops.

He spent the rest of his life in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he continued to crusade for and against the causes near and dear to him. He was active in the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont teachers' association until his death; wrote prolifically on a variety of subjects; and in 1880 ran for President on the Antimason ticket. He died in Guilford, February 2, 1885, and was buried there.

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