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Located on the southern side of Phelps Grove Park, these historical markers commemorate two of Springfield's leading figures during the 19th century, John S. and Mary W. Phelps. The park is named after them and was once part of the Phelps farm, which was 1,050 acres in size. John served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1844-1862 and as Missouri governor from 1877-1881. During the Civil War, he formed a local infantry unit that served for the Union and was appointed military governor of Arkansas in 1862. Mary, who became an orphan at a young age, operated orphanages in the county during and after war, including one in the Phelp's home. She also temporarily buried the abandoned body of Union General Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed during the Battle of Wilson's Creek in 1861.

Mary Whitney Phelps, the wife of Missouri politician and governor, John Smith Phelps, is known for taking care of orphans during the Civil War. She also buried the abandoned body of Union General Nathaniel Lyon so that his family could retrieve it.

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John Smith Phelps served in the state assembly, the U.S. Congress, and as governor. During the Civil War, he organized an infantry regiment in his name that fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas.

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John Smith Phelps (1814-1886)

John Phelps was born on December 22, 1814 in Connecticut. One of five children, he attended Washington College (now called Trinity College) in Hartford, Connecticut. He studied law with his father and married Mary, who was divorced, in Maine in 1837. His father, however, disapproved of the marriage and apparently disinherited John. Presumably to start a new life away from his father, John and Mary moved to Springfield that year. John opened a law practice which quickly became successful and his reputation grew. He was elected to the state assembly in 1840 and four years later, he ran successfully for Congress where he served until 1863. John was a Democrat and a slave owner.

When the Civil War began in 1861, he returned to Springfield and enlisted in a local infantry company and was later promoted to lieutenant colonel. Sometime that year he organized the infantry unit, which was called Phelp's Regiment. It saw action at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northeast Arkansas on March 7-8, 1862. In July, President Abraham Lincoln appointed John as military governor of Arkansas but he served only until 1864 due to poor health. Back in Springfield, he resumed his law practice and was later elected as governor in 1876, serving one term. He died on November 20, 1886.

Mary Whitney Phelps (1812-1878)

Mary Phelps was in Portland, Maine in 1812. She became an orphan after her parents died when she was young. Information about her life before she got married is not readily available, but it is known that she was briefly married and owned a seamstress business. It is unclear how she and John met. In Springfield, Mary became in charge of the farm, building the family house, and raising the children while John was away in Washington and serving in the war. She also committed herself to running local schools. Her work in this area became well known. In 1851, Christian College in Columbia, Missouri—now known as Columbia College–named its library and literary society after her.

During the Civil War, Mary gathered and provided supplies to the Union armies in the area and treated soldiers wounded at the Battles of Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge. As noted above, she buried Lyon's body on the family farm so that his family could retrieve it (they came all the way from Connecticut). He was the first Union general to die in the war. To reward her for caring for Lyon's body, wounded soldiers, and orphans, Congress awarded her $20,000 which she used to establish a new orphanage. It appears she had been operating at least three orphanages (including the one in the Phelp's home) before receiving the money.

After the war, Mary became involved with the Confederate Burial Association and worked to bury the remains of soldiers who died at Wilson's Creek at a Confederate cemetery next to the Springfield National Cemetery. In 1868, she established the Mary Phelps Institute for Young Ladies in Springfield. Mary was also an active suffragist. To this end, she called for the women's right to vote at the Missouri Constitutional Convention in 1865 and and served as a vice president of the National Women's Suffrage Association in 1869. She also operated a cheese-making business on the farm. She died of pneumonia on January 15, 1878.

"Civil War Orphan's Home." The Historical Marker Database. Accessed May 17, 2022.

"John Smith Phelps (1814–1886)." Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Accessed May 17, 2022. Last Updated March 16, 2022.

"John Smith Phelps / Phelps Homesite 1814-1866." The Historical Marker Database. Accessed May 17, 2022.

"Mary Whitney Phelps (1812-1878)." The Historical Marker Database. Accessed May 17, 2022.

"Mary Whitney Phelps." Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865, Tent 22, Springfield, Missouri.

Wilson, Emma. "New Marker Will Honor Springfield Civil War Heroine." KSMU Ozarks Public Radio. September 28, 2011.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Both images via The Historical Marker Database