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Antique letters and memoir, clinched at auction, reveal heroine's determination after the Battle of Wilson's Creek

Mary Whitney Phelps
Mary Whitney Phelps was a trailblazing Missouri resident who saw her community through the perils of the Civil War.

The public can gain new insight into what happened in the tense hours and days following the Civil War battle, thanks to the acquisition of previously unpublished eyewitness accounts written by Springfield resident Mary Whitney Phelps.

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Foundation purchased the papers at a nationally advertised auction and donated them to the Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, which is administered by the National Park Service.

Who was Mary Whitney Phelps?

Mary Whitney Phelps, who was born in 1812 and who died in 1878, is one of Missouri's Union female heroes of the Civil War, according to the Springfield-Greene County Library District.

Rather than flee with other prominent Unionists after the Battle of Wilson's Creek, she stayed behind in Springfield to oversee General Nathaniel Lyon's burial and to care for the wounded soldiers left behind during the retreat.

Phelps's letters and memoir are available for public viewing through the library district's digital collection.

First-person account of General Lyon's burial

"Lyon's body was brought to the Phelps' farm, and it was threatened," said Brian Grubbs, who manages the library's local history and geneaology department. "Mary Whitney ended up having the body temporarily buried on her property and took care of the body until it was able to be transferred out east for the family."

Grubbs said the papers share details of events leading up to the battle—and the tension surrounding the major battle.

"So she writes about her interaction with General Lyon and General (Sterling) Price and the wounded after the battle and the buildup in Springfield and what tensions were like just before the battle happened."

The memoir is missing at least three leaves that discuss the Battle of Wilson's Creek. But it includes Phelps' discussion of the burial of General Lyon. The collection also includes a letter written by Phelps' husband, John Smith Phelps, to their daughter, Mary Phelps Montgomery, as well as a letter written by Montgomery, according to a news release from the library. John Smith Phelps, of Springfield, represented Missouri in the U.S. Congress but returned home to fight for the Union. He later served as governor of Missouri from 1877 to 1881.

The papers are available on the library's Community and Conflict Digital Collection at , which is a collaborative project between the library district and Wilson's Creek National Battlefield.

The goal is to tell the story of how the war impacted life in the Ozarks, Grubbs said.

Thousands of pages of letters, diaries, books and photographs are among the collection, with content provided by universities, private individuals and others.

"We're doing this so that way we can continue to understand the events that happened and learn from those," Grubbs said.