Phelps, John S.

Born: 1814-12-22 Simsbury, Connecticut

Died: 1886-11-20 Saint Louis, Missouri

The son of Congressman Elisha Phelps of Connecticut, John Phelps graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1832. Phelps married Mary Whitney on April 30, 1837, and the couple had two children. He gained admission to the bar in Connecticut before he moved his family to Springfield, Missouri, in 1837. A Democrat and slaveholder, he served in the Missouri House of Representatives before winning election to Congress, serving in that body from 1845 to 1863. Phelps supported Stephen A. Douglas for president in 1860. But when the Civil War began, Phelps supported the Union as a War Democrat. He enlisted in the Missouri Infantry, eventually joining the Union Army and advancing to the rank of colonel. He fought in the Union defeat at Wilson's Creek, near his home in Springfield. His wife was with him, serving as a Union army nurse. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed him military governor of Arkansas, where he was critical of General Samuel Curtis after the Battle of Pea Ridge. Phelps disagreed with the Lincoln administration's policy to free and arm slaves, and Lincoln removed him as military governor. After his removal, Phelps returned to the army. During the war, his farm was looted by Union troops, and Phelps was financially ruined; but he remained a Unionist throughout the war.

Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 1658; Michael B. Dougan, "Phelps, John Smith," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17:431-32.