Woman receives honor for orphanages

Springfield News-Leader, 11:00 PM, Sep. 18, 2011, by Claudette Riley

Historical marker will remember care of Civil War orphans.

The orphaned children of Civil War soldiers were fed, loved and looked after in a series of Springfield homes operated by Mary Whitney Phelps.

Mary Phelps

This month, the Civil War Orphans’ Home historical marker — honoring Phelps’ work — will be dedicated on the grounds of Sunshine Elementary.

“Mary Whitney Phelps was a true heroine of the Civil War,” said Sally Lyons McAlear, president of the Mary Whitney Phelps Tent No. 22, Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “It is known that she took an interest — having been an orphan herself — in the Civil War orphans and half-orphans in Springfield.”

Phelps became deeply involved in the plight of children who lost one or both parents during the bloody battles in southwest Missouri and beyond.

“The Civil War did leave a large population of orphaned children,” McAlear said. “She used these different homes, throughout time, in downtown Springfield. We were in a dilemma about where to place it.”

Location of those orphans’ homes included:

» Home of John S. and Mary Whitney Phelps on the 1,050-acre Phelps Plantation, now the area of Phelps Grove Park.

» Home of Louisa Campbell, widow of Springfield’s founder, John Polk Campbell.

» Former Berry mansion, used as a government hospital during the war, now roughly the area of the John Q. Hammons fountain on Chestnut Expressway.

In 1866, the U.S. Congress recognized Phelps’ work on behalf of wounded soldiers and orphaned children with a $20,000 award, which she used to finance the expenses of the orphans’ home.

Two years later, the Mary Phelps Institute for Young Ladies opened in a two-story frame building near the northeast corner of Sunshine Street and Campbell Avenue.

McAlear said that institute served “orphans, half-orphans and indigent girls and operated until there was no longer a need.”

The decision to locate the historical marker, made of black granite, on the Sunshine Elementary campus — strategically located near several of the home locations — was enthusiastically supported.

“How appropriate to place it on the grounds of a school,” McAlear said. “It was the hope from the beginning that we involve the children at Sunshine in what the Civil War was all about.”

A ceremony to unveil the historical marker has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Sept. 30 at the school’s corner of Sunshine Street and Jefferson Avenue.

Sunshine Principal Rene Saner said teachers are exploring different ways to weave the lessons of the Civil War — and the lives of children living during that time — into classroom lessons.

“It’s a time that these kids can’t relate to and this will help them understand,” Saner said. “It’s an excellent opportunity for our kids to learn about our history.”

Students have been practicing the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in music class and fifth-graders are writing essays about life during the Civil War.

Extra resources, including access to a trunk of artifacts used by soldiers during that war, will be made available to Sunshine teachers this month.

The event will also be a learning experience. Civil War bonnets, made by members of the Daughters of Union Veterans, will be presented to girls enrolled at Sunshine. The boys will receive Abraham Lincoln top hats.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Stephens, Presiding Commissioner Jim Viebrock, Rep. Sara Lampe and Associate Superintendent Ben Hackenwerth plan to speak during the event.

The Phelps Camp No. 66, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, will provide a color guard and musket volley. Others are expected to attend in Civil War era attire.

As students grow and move on to middle and high school, McAlear said she hopes they will pass the historical marker and remember they played a role in its unveiling.

“At long last, Mrs. Phelps’ contributions are being etched in stone,” McAlear said, in a written release. “It will be sitting there in a prominent place.”

The Mary Whitney Phelps Tent No. 22, Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865, will dedicate the Civil War Orphans’ Home historical marker this month. The ceremony is 1 p.m. Sept. 30 at Sunshine Elementary, the corner of Sunshine Street and Jefferson Avenue. Parking is available at the adjacent Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church.

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