The marker has the image of three actual Civil War orphans. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

OPINION |

If ever Springfield had a power couple, it was Mary Whitney Phelps and John Smith Phelps.

Mary Phelps (1812-1878) and John Smith Phelps (1814-1886) lived in Springfield, and Phelps Grove Park is named for them.

John was Missouri’s 23rd governor, serving from 1877 to 1881. Mary used her influence to help orphans. She cared for the wounded during the Civil War. She secreted away and secured the body of General Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in 1861.

Someone recently mentioned to me there is a historical marker outside Sunshine Elementary School acknowledging Mary’s efforts to care for the orphans of Greene County.

A ‘civic-minded citizen named Mary Whitney Phelps’

I visited the reflective black marble monument Thursday. It’s at the northeast corner of Sunshine Street and Jefferson Avenue.

A marker honoring Mary Whitney Phelps and her efforts to help orphans was placed in 2011 near Sunshine Elementary School. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

The marker tells a bit of history on each of its sides.

On one side it states:

“The ravages of the Civil War left a large population of orphaned and half-orphaned children roaming the countryside in need of homes.”

(Half-orphaned means one of the parents has died.)

“Springfield was fortunate to have a civic-minded citizen named Mary Whitney Phelps, wife of the future governor of Missouri, John S. Phelps.

“Mary, also an orphan, championed these children, who were housed in several locations in the county, including the Phelps residence and later the home of Louisa Campbell, the widow of Springfield founder, John Polk Campbell.”

I know enough local history to be aware that Louisa Campbell was a Confederate partisan. She and her husband had four sons who served in the Confederacy; two of them were killed in the war.

A better and kinder Springfield

In researching this column, it was startling to me how much Mary and John Phelps influenced Springfield — and the state — and made them better and kinder.

Mary was born to a sea captain in Portland, Maine. He died at sea when she was young, and her mother died soon after.

John was a young lawyer, following in his father’s legal footsteps, in Connecticut.

When they met, she was a 26-year-old divorcee who had a seamstress business. John was 23 and working in his father’s law firm.

This biographical information comes in part from the website the Mary Whitney Phelps Tent No. 22, Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

He knew who his true North Star was

John’s father threatened to disinherit him if he married Mary.

That did not stop John. Like a sea captain, his compass was fixed. He knew his true North Star.

They married and in 1837 settled in what was then a frontier town: Springfield, Missouri.

His law firm flourished and he eventually was elected to Congress.

He spent much time in Washington, D.C., and she managed their 1,050-acre farm here in Springfield. Or what was then south of Springfield.

She was with husband at battle at Pea Ridge

When the war started, John returned to Springfield and organized Phelps’ Regiment, a unit he led in heavy fighting at the battle at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in 1862.

Mary was there, as well, caring for the wounded, as she did in Springfield.

Their home back here was used as a hospital during the Civil War. It was also used as a home for orphans. At one point she was in charge of the care for 250 orphans.

The orphanage was open to orphans from both sides of the war.

Mary successfully recruited other families in the area to open their homes to orphans.

General’s body returned to Connecticut

When Union General Nathaniel Lyon was slain at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on Aug. 10, 1861, she managed to take charge of the body and had it secured.

She had it protected by Union soldiers. It was later returned to Lyon’s home state of Connecticut.

It is thought by most local historians that the orphanage building was actually at Sunshine and Campbell, not at Sunshine and Jefferson, which is a block away.

The other side of the marker says:

“By 1868, a two-story frame building was completed on 27 acres. The site was part of a tract of land formerly owned by Leonidas Campbell (son of Springfield’s founder).

“This tract was bounded by present-day Kimbrough Ave., on the east; Sunshine St., on the south; and Campbell Ave. on the west.

“The Mary Phelps Institute for Young Ladies was located 1½ miles south of the city of Springfield and served orphans, half-orphans and indigent girls.

“The school was not to make money, but to provide a service. As much as possible, matrons filled the role of a mother.”

She founded a 60-room ‘seminary’ for orphans

I found a story in the Springfield Leader and Press from April 1, 1928 that indicates to me that Mary Phelps was doing everything in her power to help orphans before the Civil War commenced.

The story states, in part:

“Making way for modern advancements, many of Springfield’s historical buildings, landmarks of the early eventful days, during the past few years have been razed and replaced by newer ones.

“Among the latest of this group to fall by destructive hands is the ‘Old Orphans’ home building, or seminary, on Sunshine drive, between Campbell and Jefferson avenues.

“The original building was constructed several years before the Civil War by Mrs. John S. Phelps, wife of Governor Phelps. Mrs. Phelps had the building erected for the purpose of teaching orphans. The original building was built of brick and contained about 60 large rooms.

“It was partially destroyed by fire several years after the Civil war.”

Hailed as one of state’s top governors

Mary never lived in the governor’s mansion with her husband. She had too many interests here in Springfield. She died of pneumonia a year after he moved to Jefferson City.

The Wikipedia entry for her husband states that when he retired in 1881, he was hailed as one of Missouri’s best governors, principally for his support for public education and his efforts, like Abraham Lincoln had intended, to reunite, without malice, a divided people.

They are buried at Hazelwood Cemetery here in Springfield.

I should note that a second historical marker commemorates the life of Mary Whitney Phelps. It is at Phelps Grove Park at the corner of Brookside and Virginia.

This is Pokin Around column No. 71.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin