Buckfield sailor fought Indians and Confederates, but not at the same time

Ask a Civil War buff from Maine if he or she has heard of Thomas Stowell Phelps, and the resultant blank stare is understandable. His name does not appear alongside Chamberlain’s on the Maine Civil War hero list, and his blood-spattered banner does not hang in the Hall of Flags at the State House.

Yet Phelps, a farm lad from Buckfield, belongs on Maine’s hero list. After enlisting in the United States Navy in 1840, he became an officer and ultimately a rear admiral before dying in New York City in 1901. He fought Confederates during the Civil War and commanded the USS Juniata during the January 1865 assault on Fort Fisher in North Carolina.

And Phelps enjoys the distinction of not only being an outstanding blue-water sailor and Confederate gunboat basher; he was also an Indian fighter. Years before the Civil War, he fought Indians during the Battle of Seattle.

Lieutenant Phelps had been assigned to the USS Decatur, a sloop that sailed from the Norfolk Navy Yard in mid-June 1854, rounded Cape Horn in January 1855, and reached the Strait of Juan de Fuca on July 19, 1855.

By that summer, tensions had escalated between Pacific Northwest Indian tribes and American settlers establishing farms and villages on Puget Sound. Years later, in his “Reminiscences of Seattle, Washington Territory, and the U.S. Sloop-of-War Decatur During the Indian War of 1855-56,” Phelps noted that the first white settlers established the future Seattle in April 1852.

“The early settlers, I believe, were always kind, just and considerate in dealing with the natives,” Phelps wrote, “but as the country filled with new arrivals, many rough characters, so-called ‘pioneers of civilization’ … seized their (Indian) reserved lands, drove them from the fisheries, deprived them of their just dues, surreptitiously shot some, hung others, and became ingenious in their methods of oppression.”

Senior officer aboard the USS Decatur was Commander Isaac S. Sterrett when the sloop lay moored at Honolulu in June 1855. Sterrett “received orders to ‘cruise on the coast of Oregon and California for the protection of settlers,’” Phelps recalled. Sterrett set course for the Columbia River, then veered to Port San Juan on Vancouver Island. There “an English trader … gave information of a meditated attack of many thousands of the Northern Indians upon those [settlers]” on Vancouver Island “and Washington Territory,” Phelps wrote.

The USS Decatur sailed to Port Townsend, then “repaired to the California navy yard” for “provisions and ammunition,” Phelps noted. By afternoon on October 4, 1855, the sloop anchored “near the town of Seattle,” and the American sailors learned that several Indian tribes – including the Kliktat, Nisqually, Puyallup, Spokane, Walla-Walla, and Yakami – had “united with hostile intentions.”

Tensions finally exploded about 8 a.m. on Sunday, October 28, 1855 when Indians attacked settlers “at the Pup-shulk Prairie,” Phelps reported. Seven-year-old John King took his 4-year-old sister and 2-year-old brother by the hand and fled toward Seattle, then 25 miles away. Their parents had died during the Indian attack.

The children encountered friendly Indians about 5 miles away, and “a young man called ‘Wash Tom’ immediately embarked the little waifs in his canoe and started down the river for a place of safety,” Phelps wrote. As that canoe approached the USS Decatur about 10 a.m. on Monday, October 29, a guard boat intercepted the craft. Sailors brought aboard Wash Tom “and [the] three children, the latter suffering from cold, hunger, and neglect,” stated Phelps, now an eyewitness.

Leaving Marines commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Drake to help garrison a Seattle blockhouse, the USS Decatur sailed on November 20 for Fort Steilacoom. There Lieutenant Aaron Hughes “was dispatched with the first cutter to investigate” approximately “thirty Northern Indians encamped to the southward of town,” Phelps noted. “As he landed and was advancing upon them, the Indians, wrought to a high pitch of anger by the townsmen … covered him with their guns and ordered them back.”

The “undaunted” (and likely overconfident) Hughes “pushed onward, and as the Indians were on the point of firing,” several Indian women “seized and pressed the muzzles of the rifles down, and by their presence of mind saved the officer’s life and their entire band from annihilation,” Phelps wrote. “An amicable conversation followed,” and the Indians departed.

The USS Decatur returned to Seattle, then sailed to Port Madison, where Sterrett invited aboard 19 Indians, major and minor chiefs, and gave “them an exhibition of the power of heavy guns, the explosive nature of iron shells, and [the] destructive qualities of grape and canister,” Phelps reported. Sterrett “explained the [political] situation” to the Indians, who decamped from Puget Sound within 12 hours.

While navigating the sound at 2 p.m., December 7, 1855, the USS Decatur “struck upon a rocky reef” near Bainbridge Island and stuck there when “a sharp point penetrated the keel,” Phelps recalled. Three hours later, “a sharp report was heard,” and anxious sailors discovered their ship’s starboard “side, from the keel up, being stove in,” he wrote.

Experienced sailors conducted hasty repairs, including caulking “the open seams … with blankets,” he wrote. At 6 a.m., December 8, the sloop departed “under a press of canvas” for Seattle, where Sterrett learned he had been arbitrarily court-martialed by the 1855 Navy Board. Commander Guert Gansevoort replaced Sterrett at Seattle; later, Sterrett “was triumphantly vindicated before a proper tribunal” and “was restored to the active list,” Phelps noted.

Pulled ashore at “Yesler’s wharf” in Seattle, the badly damaged Decatur underwent extensive repairs, and the ship’s earlier grounding proved fortuitous. “The starboard side … excepting an inch of the outer surface” was “completely dry-rotted,” Phelps wrote. Had the USS Decatur not been damaged in Puget Sound, the next savage Pacific storm might have stove in the ship’s starboard side.

The USS Decatur floated again on January 19, 1856. The previous night, “the discharge of a musket” had convinced Seattle residents and the Decatur’s crew that an Indian attack was imminent; “an armed guard” sent to investigate soon discovered a dead man, identified as John Drew. He was “a deserter from the Decatur,” Phelps reported.

Apparently he had attempted to burglarize a house occupied by a “Miss Holgate” by crawling through a window. As she fought with Drew and screamed for help, “her brother (Milton), a lad of thirteen, came to her rescue with a small fowling-piece” and shot Drew in the head, Phelps noted.

“About the 21st of January,” the Decatur’s crew heard that approaching Indians were intending “to attack simultaneously Seattle and Steilacoom.” Learning about the warship’s grounding, the Indians planned to capture the USS Decatur and use its gunpowder and ammunition against white settlers.

Gansevoort divided his crewmen into divisions; Phelps commanded the Third Division, and the sailors “nightly occupied the shore” while “vigilantly guarding the people as they slept,” he recalled. The Third Division occupied a position that secured “the approaches from the lake.”

So five officers, 18 Marines (assigned to the blockhouse), and 96 sailors held a line three-quarters of a mile in length. Only a dying elderly sailor, Hans Carl, “was unable to answer … the muster-roll,” Phelps wrote.

On January 25, Governor Isaac Stevens arrived at Seattle aboard a ship and informed the settlers that “there are not fifty hostile Indians in the territory.” He then sailed away as the settlers decided that no threat existed. That afternoon some friendly Indians sought asylum within the Seattle defenses.

At 5 p.m., January 25, the Decatur’s four divisions filed ashore to their defensive positions and hunkered down in weather “heavily overcast and misty,” Phelps wrote. “Not a sound above a whisper could be heard along the entire line.”

At 8 p.m., two Indians “closely wrapped in their blankets” approached the Third Division. Phelps sought their identity; realizing they probably belonged to the asylum-seeking Indians, “I remanded them to the camp” – and let pass into Seattle two hostile high chiefs scouting the town prior to an all-out Indian assault.

According to Phelps, those chiefs later joined warriors lurking in “the wilderness” outside Seattle. All the hostile chiefs gathered “at midnight, commencing January 26” to plan an overwhelming assault and “indiscriminate slaughter of all the people found in Seattle. The attack [was] to be made about 2 o’clock A.M.”

Then Yark-eke-e-man, an Indian friendly to the Seattle settlers, risked his life to convince the chiefs to postpone the attack “until ten o’clock, when the Decatur’s men will have breakfasted and gone to sleep” after completing their nighttime guard duty. The chiefs agreed; as the sailors “were moving on board” the Decatur at 7 a.m., January 26, two Indians crossed a nearby sandbar, and their appearance concerned Phelps.

Suddenly “the long-roll summoned” the weary American sailors “to the deck, and ten minutes later found them, breakfast less, under arms” at their assigned shore positions. Accompanied by Gansevoort, Phelp’s Third Division left the ship as Indian women, described by Phelps as “non-combatants of the friendly tribes,” fled in their canoes. An Indian woman “shrieked” a warning while pointing at the forest.

Then “the howitzer rang loud and clear,” a ship’s cannon threw “a shell over our heads,” and a fearful crash of musketry” erupted “from the … rear of the town” as the Battle of Seattle began that January 26.

With Indian warriors pouring into Seattle, Phelps and the Third Division “caught sight of the Indians massed in the Lake trail, and, contrary to orders, charged and drove them” away so the sailors could reach their defensive positions.

The battle immediately settled into a long-range shooting contest. “Early in the action,” an Indian fired on a settler “standing on the block-house steps,” Phelps recalled. The bullet missed the settler and struck “young Holgate,” the brave 13-year-old who had shot his sister’s assailant only a week earlier. Shot in the head, “the poor boy fell backward, dead, upon the floor.”

As a Decatur gun crew shelled the Indian positions, muskets banged and bullets whistled “beneath an overcast and lowering sky,” Phelps wrote. Another young settler died, and “the shrill screaming of the Indian women” echoed across Seattle. They chastised laggard warriors, even those sent scampering into the woods when a navy shell landed and failed to explode. “With joined hands,” triumphant warriors danced around the shell, which suddenly detonated and dealt “death to ten of their number.”

Pouring intense fire into the settlers’ positions, the Indians gradually tightened their noose around Seattle. A “Lake chief” named Klakum personally stalked Phelps “for five tedious hours that day” from cover. “The sharp crack of his Western rifle, a frequent jet of blue smoke, and the fierce ‘ping’ a moment after” constantly enveloped Phelps. He traded bullet for bullet.

Indian guns fell silent at 11:45 a.m., a chief bellowed orders, “the ship’s bell announced the hour of noon, and down came the Indians, like so many demons, tearing through the bushes, and filling the air with frightful yells,” Phelps remembered. Charging him and his assigned 13 sailors, the Indians “reached the edge of the chaparral, not twenty feet away” and “delivered a terrific volley” before retreating to the forest edge.

Phelps believed the Indians sought to overrun his position, turn the defenders’ flank, and then roll up their line and slaughter every last defender. The Indians should have pressed home their attack; “with two bounds, or three at the most, the third division would have gone down like grass before a mower’s scythe,” he wrote. “In a few moments the battle [would] have been won,” but “the town remained in our possession, and the Indian cause was forever lost.”

Around 2 p.m., naval gunners added a field gun to the Third Division’s position. Phelps ordered the gun aimed and fired at where Klakum hid behind a tree; “a well-directed shrapnel” shell exploded just beyond Klakum and “cut away a heavy lock of hair just above his ear,” Phelps wrote.

Klakum fled, and desultory firing continued through the afternoon. With Seattle’s women and children safely aboard the USS Decatur and a nearby civilian brig, the sailors “repaired on board” the naval sloop and manned its cannons. Shot and shell poured into the woods, an accurate shell chased away Indians bent on burning several buildings after dark, and “at 10 P.M. the last gun was fired, and the battle of Seattle was among the things of the past,” Phelps recorded.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.