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Local History

New Marker Will Honor Springfield Civil War Heroine

This is a photograph of a young Mary Whitney Phelps. (Photo credit: Sally McAlear)

On Friday, a new marker will be unveiled to honor a local heroine who had a huge impact in the lives of Springfield children during the time of America’s Civil War. For our ongoing local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson examines this new monument and the woman it commemorates.

I’m standing in front of Sunshine Elementary on the corner of Jefferson and Sunshine. Cars are zooming past, and inside the building, today’s generation of schoolchildren is just beginning to learn about Springfield’s role in the Civil War. One hundred and fifty years ago, all of this area would have been vast farmland south of what was turning into the town of Springfield. This is the same land on which Mary Whitney Phelps established an orphanage for those children displaced by the Civil War.

“She was a true heroine of the Civil War,” McAlear said.

That’s Sally McAlear. She’s the president of the Mary Whitney Phelps Tent No. 22 of Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.  That’s a heritage organization that works to memorialize important events and people in the Civil War at a local level.

“She realized that there was a large population of orphaned and half-orphaned children in the area and she became involved in their plight. She operated several homes in the area,” McAlear said.   

Mary Phelps was herself an orphan and moved to this area from Connecticut with her husband, John Phelps, in the late 1830s. They established a thousand acre plantation, much of which is now Phelps Grove Park and the surrounding neighborhood. John Phelps was quickly elected to state office and later served an 18-year term as the Congressman from this area. When the Civil War broke out, he returned to Missouri and formed an infantry regiment that fought for the Union at Pea Ridge. A decade after the war, he became one of the most fondly remembered governors of Missouri.

While her husband was off being a politician and a soldier, Mary ran the farm, built a house, and raised their family. A staunch Unionist, she brought supplies to the armies that fought at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge and tended to the wounded soldiers. She’s probably most famous for her actions after the first Union General was killed in combat, General Nathaniel Lyon. Mary Phelps protected his body, which had been abandoned in Springfield during the Union’s retreat to Rolla after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.  She was even recognized at the federal level. Again, Sally McAlear,

“In 1866 she was recognized by the United States Congress for her work on behalf of wounded soldiers and orphaned children with the adoption of a resolution that had a monetary award of 20,000 dollars and she used that award to finance the expenses of the orphans’ home,” McAlear said.

Phelps ran at least three different homes for orphans during and after the war and founded the Mary Phelps Institute for Young Ladies in 1868. That was near the intersection of Sunshine Street and Campbell Avenue today. The Institute served orphaned, half-orphaned and indigent girls. Sally Bueno is a previous President of the Mary Phelps Tent No. 22.

Bueno said, “She was traveling clear to Springfield, Missouri, ultimately to make herself a civic-minded citizen, a person who would throw herself into the fray to get things done. And I think that’s what makes her such a special person. And especially since at that period of time, women usually couldn’t step out to make a difference and she made the difference.”

The Mary Whitney Phelps Tent No. 22 will commemorate that difference by placing a marker outside Sunshine Elementary School. Bueno says they chose this location because it’s centrally located between the various orphan home sites. Sunshine’s staff members have used this opportunity to teach their students about history. 

“I believe that the children will be able to actually feel a union with children who had lost parents and [have] sentiments and feelings about that human spirit that we all have, from 1860 to now,” Bueno said.

At the unveiling, students from Sunshine Elementary will wear Civil War era bonnets and Abraham Lincoln-style top hats to sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a song they’ve been practicing in music class. The ceremony will last about a half an hour and feature Civil War essays read by two fifth grade students, period dress, and a musket volley and color guard provided by the Phelps Camp No. 66 of the Sons of Union Veterans.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.