McClaughry: Vermont’s emancipator, Gen. John Wolcott Phelps

By John McClaughry

America has just celebrated a new national holiday, June 19 (“Juneteenth”). It was the date in 1865 when a Union general arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that slavery had been abolished in America. Actually three quarters of the states, many of them with federally-controlled governments, did not ratify the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery until almost six months later, but let’s overlook that.

Public domain

Gen. John Wolcott Phelps

But Vermonters shouldn’t overlook the Emancipation Proclamation of a gallant and principled Vermonter, General John Wolcott Phelps, of Guilford. Phelps, a career Army officer, had resigned from the Army in 1859 in protest at the Army’s domination by Southern Democrats supportive of slavery. At the outbreak of the Civil War he volunteered for active duty, first as colonel of the First Vermont Regiment of Volunteers, then as a Union brigadier general.

In that capacity he arrived aboard ship at Ship Island, Mississippi in December 1861. There he read to the assembled officers and passengers an inspired denunciation of slavery and a powerful argument that “only with Free Labor and Workingmen’s Rights can our munificent government, the asylum of the nations, be perpetuated and preserved.”

Of course Gen. Phelps had no authority actually free slaves, but his tract became known as the Phelps Emancipation Proclamation. The secretary of war was forced to repudiate it, as it could obstruct the border states’ allegiance to the Union.

Still, it makes glorious reading today, and Vermonters should commemorate it.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

Image courtesy of Public domain

One thought on “McClaughry: Vermont’s emancipator, Gen. John Wolcott Phelps

  1. Thanks for this commentary Mr. McClaughry.
    It would be interesting to speculate what this “gallant and principled Vermonter” would make of things today.

    Based on the actions of other Vermont Republicans of that time like Senators Justin Morrill and George Edmunds, (both voted to impeach President Johnson), it is likely that General Phelps would be a strong advocate for equal rights and adequate access for voting for African-Americans.

    It is also likely, that Phelps would be a proponent of providing opportunity and assistance, when appropriate, for those who have suffered from the scourge of slavery and discrimination. Like Justin Morrill, who in his second 1890 Land Grant College Act made sure that Blacks were given to opportunity for higher education, Phelps, if he lived today, would support providing the needed guarantees of equal treatment for all Americans.

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