Revolutionary War Historical Article
King George III’s Soldiers
Major General William Phillips
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the May 2007 Edition
of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
Major General William Phillips
was one of very few British Officers that
rose to the rank of General by his ability
alone. He was born a commoner, without
the usual political or family influence of
Britain’s ruling class. He was the son and
grandson of career soldiers. His ancestry
included several barons and knights who
over the centuries had proven their loyalty
to the Crown. At sixteen years of age he
was admitted into the Royal Artillery Academy at
Woolwich, England, as a gentlemen cadet. He excelled
as an artilleryman, mastering every facet of artillery
warfare, gaining the respect of his instructors. On
January 2nd, 1747, he was commissioned
Major General William Phillips
Courtesy of the Frick Library
When the Seven Years War (we call it the French and Indian War) broke out between England allied with Germany, and the French and Austrians - he was sent to the front, and was drafted into the "Royal Artillery Regiment", promoted to the rank of Captain (May 12th, 1756) and commanded a battery of heavy artillery. He was mentioned in dispatches for his gallantry, ingenuity, and handling his artillery.
During the fierce battle of Minden, Northern Germany, August 1st, 1759, Major General John Waldegrave, the Earl of Waldegrave, commanding the First Brigade of Infantry (12th, 23rd, and 37th Regiments of Foot) and Major General William Kingsley, commanding the Second Brigade (20th, 25th and 51st Regiments) misunderstood their orders and were advancing on the main French army completely unsupported. The French immediately brought their artillery to bear. Seeing this and realizing the devastation that would surely follow, Captain Phillips brought his heavy artillery up at a gallop for over five miles. This was unheard of, and thought to be impossible. His heavy guns made short work of the French artillery, and with his support the two brigades of British infantry repelled the counterattacks and led the Allied army to victory. Phillips gained fame by this unprecedented manoeuvre, and resulted in his being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel (August 15th, 1760).
On February 10th, 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the seven years of warfare, and put the British army on a peacetime footing. Lt. Colonel Phillips assumed the position of Inspector General of Artillery serving in the Mediterranean area. He was transferred back to England and commanded the Royal Artillery Academy at Woolwich, his Alma Mater.
1772 saw another transfer and promotion. He was made a Colonel and appointed Lieutenant Governor of Windsor Castle. His appointment brought him into direct contact with King George III, as Windsor Castle was the preferred royal residence of the King. As a result, he was again promoted to Brigadier General, in 1774 and was elected a Member of Parliament for the Borough-Bridge district of Yorkshire. On April 19th, 1775, hostilities broke out in the American Colonies at Lexington, Concord and Battle Road. Reenforcements were quickly gathered in England. When word was received of the attempt by the Americans to take Canada, a strong force was sent to serve under Major General Sir Guy Carleton, Governor General of Canada. Among these reenforcements was Brigadier General Phillips, who was to command the Artillery in that province. On January 1st, 1776 he was promoted to Major General (in America) and assigned to defend St. Johns, at the Northern end of Lake Champaign, a very important British base. He held that command until December of 1776.
Lieutenant General, John "Gentlemen Johnny" Burgoyne had convinced the British High Command that victory could be achieved in America by invading from Canada. The plan was for the British to mount a major expedition and move down Lake Champaign, capture Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point, move south and take Albany, New York, then link up with Lieutenant General William Howe’s force moving North From New York City. The effect would be to control the entire length of the Hudson River, and separate New England from the rest of the colonies. Major General William Phillips was assigned deputy and wing commander of the invading British Army serving directly under Lieutenant General John Burgoyne. Throughout this campaign, he displayed the greatest courage and leadership, completely disregarding his personal safety.
Upon arriving at Fort Ticonderoga, known as the Gibraltar of America, it is thought that it was Phillips who devised the plan to place artillery on top of Mount Defiance and force the abandoning of the Fort. It was successful, and no costly attack was necessary.
The invasion from Canada was met with the stiffest of resistance. Burgoyne had planned on sending forces eastward to take advantage of available supplies, and a second column to come from Oswego on Lake Erie, and join him at Albany. The advance from Oswego was stopped at American Fort Stanwix, the eastward thrust was met with utter defeat at Bennington. Burgoyne and his main army were stopped at Saratoga and defeated. On October 17th, 1776, he, along with General Phillips surrendered to American Major General Horatio Gates.
General Gates agreed to very liberal terms of surrender and became known as the "Convention Army", and marched to Boston, Massachusetts, to be held there until they could be exchanged, General Phillips commanding. General Burgoyne was permitted to return to England. However, Congress did not agree to the terms, and had the surrendered captured troops marched to Albemarle Barracks near Charlottesville, Virginia.
The American Army, usually short of supplies was hard pressed to supply the British prisoners. Phillips did his best to see that his men were properly cared for. While being held a prisoner of war, General Phillips and his personal staff were frequently entertained by Thomas Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia at his home, Monticello. This hospitality would be remembered by Phillips.
General Phillips and Hessian General the Baron von Riedesel (also captured at Saratoga) were moved to New York City on parole. In November, 1779, they were exchanged for American Major General Benjamin Lincoln, who had been captured at Charleston, South Carolina on May 12th 1780. Phillips was back on active duty.
On January 1st, 1781, Lieutenant General Sir Henry
Clinton opened another front - - this time to the
Chesapeake Bay of Virginia,
under the command of new Brigadier General
Benedict Arnold who had
recently betrayed America.
Arnold launched swift
raids up the James River to Richmond, Virginia, that State’s capitol. In the process he destroyed much of the supplies needed by General Washington.
Arnold’s force was not strong enough to continue operations in Virginia with reenforcements being sent by George Washington. Further, Sir Henry realized by openly supporting the Virginia invasion he was assisting Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis’ operations further south. He then dispatched Major General Phillips with a large force to reenforce Arnold in March 1781.
On April 18th, Phillips who was in overall command, launched a major Campaign up the James River, taking Williamsburg, the Virginia State Naval base on the Chickahominy River. On the 25th, he marched his army to Petersburg, his primary objective.
Opposing General Phillips and his Army of 2,599 seasoned veteran regulars, was American Major General the Baron von Steuben with 1,000. Von Steuben’s Virginians were trained and disciplined by von Steuben and were ready for a fight. They withstood the attack on Petersburg, holding the town for over three hours, before having to give way. They were driven from their good positions only by the skillful use of artillery by Phillips. For two days following the battle at Petersburg, Phillips maneuvered his army northward, destroying the military base at Chesterfield, burning several war and cargo ships at Osborne’s Landing and finally, burning the warehouses filled with military stores at Westham.
Major General The
Baron von Steuben
Washington sent a strong force of Continentals to reenforce von Steuben. under the command of Major General, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette arrived in time to defend Richmond, denying Phillips that prize. Phillips decided that his raid had been successful, destroying much of the military stores in Virginia, and ordered his troops to march back to Portmouth. It must be noted that owing to the kind treatment he had received by Thomas Jefferson, Phillips would not allow his men to destroy private property nor harm the civilian population. His orders were: "private property and the persons of individuals not taken in arms, are to be under the protection of the troops."
While on the march to Portsmouth, Major General Phillips became violently ill with a high fever. Some believe it was either malaria or typhus. He received orders from Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, then operating in North Carolina, ordering Phillips to hole up in Petersburg, and he would march his army northward and link up with him.
Phillips arrived at Petersburg on May 9th but was so ill he had to turn over command of his army to Benedict Arnold, his second in command. The next day, LaFayette, who had been pursuing, arrived with his Continentals and militia. He occupied the heights north of Petersburg, later renamed "Colonial Heights", and immediately started bombarding the town. Phillips and Arnold made the mansion owned by Mrs. Bolling, known as Bollingbrook, their headquarters. He passed away there on the morning of May 13th. That evening he was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at Blandford Church.
Those who knew him and left comments regarding his character held him in high regard. Thomas Jefferson, who had entertained him on several occasions while he was a prisoner of war wrote: "the proudest man of the proudest nation on earth".
Captain Johann von Ewald, of the Hessian Jagers, wrote in his diary: "One saw him and his precautions that he was worthy of commanding men, and one recognized in him the skillful and industrious officer. The general drove everyone zealously to his duty. But he was the most pleasant, unselfish, and courteous man in the world."
In 1914 the Francis Bland Randolph Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected the monument depicted above, in his memory. The inscription reads: "Sacred to the memory of Maj. Gen. Wm. Phillips who died at "Bollingbrook" May 13, 1783 and whose remains lie buried in this Church Yard. Erected by the Francis Bland Randolph Chapter, DAR 1914."
Recommended Reading: “Where a Man Can Go, Major General William Phillips, British Royal Artillery, 1731-1781” by Robert P. Davis.