These histories were written by members of the Fayette County Historical Commission. They first appeared in the weekly column, "Footprints of Fayette," which is published in local newspapers.
Identifying Capt. R. H. Phelps
By Rox Ann Johnson
In an unlikely chain of events, a recent query about Waul’s Texas Legion led to the identification of two photographs that were donated to the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives many years ago--even though neither has much to do with Waul’s Legion, organized in Texas for the Confederate cause.
The Waul’s Legion question led to an entry in the Museum and Archives’ online catalog for a ribbon worn by members of the Colonel B. Timmons Camp of the United Confederate Veterans. Barnard Timmons came to La Grange in 1856. He practiced law, surveyed for the state boundary commission, and taught mathematics at the Texas Military Institute in Rutersville. When the Civil War broke out, he joined Waul’s Texas Legion and was eventually promoted to Colonel. He and others in Waul's Legion were taken prisoner when Vicksburg fell. After the war, Timmons returned to La Grange and began a law firm with Josephus Brown. He married Debra Gault of Kentucky sometime after 1870. Timmons died of tuberculosis on June 17, 1884 in La Grange, where he was buried. However, he was re-interred the following year in the Gault family plot in the State Cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky.
When the local Confederate veterans organized their “camp” in December 1891, they remembered their old friend, Barnard Timmons, and named their group for him. Capt. R. H. Phelps was elected Commander and here is where our photographs begin to come into play. An online search to determine whether Phelps had also served with Waul’s Legion (he did not) led to his entry on FindAGrave.com, where his obituary and a drawing of him had been posted.
In 2017, the Museum and Archives was given a book, Some Rebel Relics, written by Albert Theodore Goodloe. Its importance is the inscription inside: “Presented to my wife, Nettie P. Phelps June 17th, 1893, 29 years after I was wounded, being wounded at Lynchburg, Virginia June 17th 1864 in the Confederate Army.” Robert Hugh Phelps was born in West Virginia on July 11, 1848. He lost his right leg at Lynchburg on June 17, 1864, while leading a charge against the union army. Quoting his obituary, “the Confederates were repulsed, leaving the wounded on the field, and as the cavalry swept over the field in pursuit of the retreating Confederates, Captain Phelps would have been crushed beneath the enemies’ horses, but for a federal soldier who, seeing the wounded southern officer, dismounted and tenderly lifting his wounded foe, carried him to a safe retreat, gave him his own canteen of water and thus saved the life of Capt. Phelps.”
Like his father and two older brothers, Edgar and Charles, Phelps became a lawyer. In the early 1870s, he joined his brothers who were already residing in La Grange. He married Jeanette P. “Nettie” Shaw on November 1, 1876 and they had three children: Mary, John Bailey, and Nettie Louise. Phelps argued several cases before the Texas Supreme Court and became so prominent as an attorney that, in 1886, he came within four votes of being nominated as a member of the Texas Court of Appeals. Somehow, he also found time to serve as the first editor for The La Grange Journal. He was one of the organizers of the First National Bank and was very active in the community as a member of the Methodist Church, the Democratic party, the Knights of Honor, the Ancient Order of United Workmen, the American Legion of Honor, and the Woodmen of the World, besides the afore mentioned United Confederate Veterans. In 1896, he was elected major general of the Confederate Veterans’ Association of Texas, which is why his 1898 obituary in The Dallas Morning News refers to him as General Phelps. He passed away at fifty-three years of age on March 24, 1898.
Upon finding a drawing of Robert Hugh Phelps on FindaGrave.com, the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives staff immediately recognized it as the same pose as a crayon portrait that has been hanging on our wall for the past year. Excited by that discovery, we wondered whether there were other photographs of Phelps. Sure enough, he was found in a photo of an unidentified group, in which William Sion Robson was the only person known. After a few wrong turns, a search at the Portal to Texas History uncovered an Abilene newspaper clipping with an identifying caption for the same photo.
In 1884, R. H. Phelps was one of Texas’ 13 electors to cast their votes for President. Grover Cleveland was their choice. Back then, the electors were listed on general election ballots and had more responsibility in whom a state would support for President. Electors had to campaign for their posts.
When the electors met to cast their votes, W. S. Robson from La Grange lobbied and eventually won election to take the results to Washington D. C. On the back row of our photograph, Robson is leftmost and standing next to Phelps. The other men are from all over the state, including Abilene.
While we are thinking about Capt. R. H. Phelps, you might want to visit the Old La Grange City Cemetery to see his very unusual gravestone. AND, don’t give up on identifying your old family photographs!
Photographs, courtesy of the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives:
Top: A crayon portrait of Capt. R. H. Phelps
Lower: 1884 Presidential Electors for Texas by H. R. Marks, Austin
Back row: W. S. Robson; R. H. Phelps, Fayette County; J. E. McComb, Montgomery County; K. K. Legett, Taylor County; J. T. Brackenridge, Travis County; J. B. Wells, Cameron County; and G. W. Tyler, Bell County.
Seated: A. L. Matlock, Montague County; N. W. Finley, Tyler; Hon. Silas Hare, Grayson County; Hon. J. H. McLeary, Bexar County; Peyton F. Edwards, Nacogdoches County; H. C. Hinson, Jefferson; and W. F. Ramsey, Johnson County. McLeary and Hare were State-at-Large Electors. The others represented their districts.
Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives Online Catalog at https://fayettelg.booksys.net/opac/fma/index.html
“Gen. Phelp’s Death,” The Dallas Morning News, March 25, 1898 and “Capt. Phelps’ Death,” The Weimar Mercury, April 2, 1898, both transcribed at www.FayetteCountyHistory.org.
November 5, 1963 clipping from The Abilene Reporter-News at The Portal to Texas History
The La Grange Journal, miscellaneous issues
FOOTPRINTS OF FAYETTE INDEX