Capt. Henry Augustus Phelon: A Life of Adventure
To be born on Nantucket is to have an innate connection to the sea. So it was with Henry A. Phelon, whose life was full of seafaring adventures. His grandfather moved to the island from his home in the Feeding Hills section of Agawam, Mass. Henry’s father, also named Henry, took to the sea and was a captain in the Nantucket whaling fleet and was renowned for his arctic voyages. This venerable seaman married Mary Ann Folger, a descendant of the first white settler on Nantucket, who gave birth to Henry Augustus Phelon on October 12, 1831. Although the family always retained its connection with western Massachusetts, it must be said of the younger Henry’s attraction to the sea that “he came by it naturally.”
From the beginning, young Henry’s life at sea was memorable. On his first whaling voyage in 1848 aboard the Plough Boy, with his father in command, he had a narrow escape from death when his whale boat was destroyed by a whale. The ship’s mate, Albert Wood, was badly injured, but saved from death after having been caught in the great leviathan’s mouth. Then, twenty months out from Nantucket, after rounding Cape Horn, the ship encountered further trouble on some uncharted rocks off the coast of Peru and the Plough Boy was wrecked. The crew was rescued after 48 hours and taken to San Francisco.
Henry Phelon continued to sail out of San Francisco before returning to his family’s home to try his hand at farming. The 1850 census captured the 19 year-old Phelon in West Springfield with his parents’ family, listed as a “sailor.” And so it was that he was again drawn to seek adventure and, in that year, sailed on the steamer Oregon around the Horn for the coast of California. Once in San Francisco, he took to the hills with the other miners and finding a good claim, worked it until he was felled by “lung fever” (pneumonia). For reasons of his health, he left the diggings for the fast-growing city by the bay.
In San Francisco, the Vigilance Committee was bringing both order and fear to the residents and Phelon took “an active part in the volunteer government of the city.” He also engaged in the coasting trade, carrying goods up and down the Pacific coast. Once, in the wake of the “filibuster” William Walker’s attempts to take over part of Mexico and Central America, Phelon went ashore to seek repairs to his ship and was arrested and nearly executed.
He once again returned to his home base in West Springfield — where he was enumerated as a “sea captain” in the 1860 census — until the outbreak of the Civil War created an emergency demand for seamen. He volunteered his services and was made an acting master in the Union navy. He commanded several gunboats in the blockading fleet off the Carolina coast and up the James River.
Phelon resigned his commission at the end of the war and returned to New England. He married Josephine Brand, whose father was the inventor of the “bomb lance” used in whaling. They lived in West Springfield where Henry became the postmaster and proprietor of the village store. In 1877, he was appointed inspector at the customs house – a position which he held for 25 years until his death. This job required his regular presence in Boston, but he maintained his permanent home in West Springfield, frequently traveling back and forth for visits.
This job also required his occasional travel to other cities. In St. Johns, New Brunswick, in 1886, he had an interesting encounter. According to the Springfield Republican, he met the U.S. consul, James Murray, who 23 years earlier had briefly been his prisoner during the Civil War. Murray, it seems, had become separated from his New York regiment and captured by the rebels. After two weeks in a Virginia prison camp, he escaped to the Union forces on Roanoke Island, where he was mistakenly suspected of being a Confederate spy. He was turned over to Capt. Phelon for transport to Norfolk, Virginia aboard the Shawsheen. That ship was hit by a shell from a Confederate battery and destroyed. The Republican reported that “the meeting of these two men after so long a separation was a mutual surprise and very cordial. Each claimed the other saved his life and many faded memories of the war were recalled in that brief interview.”
A similar situation occurred a decade later when the same newspaper reported:
“Two old sea captains, who had not met since the war, and then only once, and that in battle, ran across each other at the dock of the Yarmouth line in Boston the other day, and shook hands for the first time, for the greetings they exchanged at their first meeting were the usual visiting cards of the war, powder and shot.
Henry A. Phelon has been for many years inspector of customs here, with home in West Springfield, but in his youth he followed the sea, and during the war was commander of the Monticello, which was at one time one of the blockading fleet at Wilmington, consisting of from 8 to 10 vessels. It was there that he encountered, in the dead of the night, the Tallahassee, commanded by J. Taylor Wood of Halifax. Capt. Phelon challenged her, but met no response, and fearing that perhaps she was one of the federal ships, but did not quite understand the signals, he challenged her again, and then fired, receiving a like salute in return.
All was utter darkness and a masked battery on land belonging to the confederacy took a hand in the game, and also began firing, making no distinction between friend and foe, but luckily harming no one. The opposing vessels exchanged several broadsides without any apparent injury to either. During all this time the Monticello sent rockets to the blockading fleet, the outpost of which it formed, to inform them of the danger. The fun lasted for some time, but the Tallahassee was a fast vessel and got away from the Monticello just as the flagship San Diego de Cuba, under command of Capt O. S. Gilson, put in an appearance to inquire into the disturbance.
‘And,’ said Comdr. Phelon, when talking to a Journal man, ‘would you believe it, the Tallahassee made a bee line for the blockading fleet and went through it like a shot, though the whole fleet had been warned by my rockets for an hour, and was firing at the Tallahassee. It was a most daring act, and I was glad to shake hands with the man who dared so much, even though more than 30 years had elapsed since our first meeting, when he gave me the slip. He was glad to see me, too, and the greeting he gave me was warm and cordial.'”
Henry Augustus Phelon died suddenly of a heart attack at his boarding house in Boston on the 1st of April in 1902 and was survived by his wife and one daughter, Grace Brand (Phelon) Regal. Thus ended the colorful life of a man of whom one newspaper wrote:
“Capt. Phelon was a very entertaining man. He had a picturesque and varied career, and his narratives of things he had seen and participated in were always most interesting. Twice, in the old days of sailing vessels, he circled the globe, and nearly completed a third trip.”
Springfield Republican, 13 August 1886; 13 November 1896; 10 May 1898; 2 April 1902; 5 April 1902
Swift, Esther M., West Springfield, Massachusetts — A Town History, Springfield, MA.: The West Springfield Heritage Association, 1969.