Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phillips, William (1731?-1781)

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PHILLIPS, WILLIAM (1731?–1781), major-general of the royal artillery, born about 1731, was appointed a gentleman cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich on 1 Aug. 1746, and a lieutenant fireworker on 2 Jan. 1747. He held the appointment of quartermaster of the royal regiment of artillery from 1 April 1750 until May 1756, having received promotion to second lieutenant on 1 March 1755 and to first lieutenant on 1 April 1756. He was appointed aide-de-camp to Sir John Ligonier [q. v.], lieutenant-general of the ordnance. On 12 May 1756 he was given a commission as captain in the army, and appointed to command a company of miners specially raised for service in Minorca, then besieged by the French. The capitulation of Port Mahon, Minorca, in June 1756, rendered the service of miners unnecessary, and, when this company was afterwards drafted into the royal regiment of artillery as a company of artillery, Phillips was transferred with it as captain, over the heads of his seniors in the regiment. He never held the rank of captain-lieutenant.

In 1758 Phillips was sent to Germany in command of a brigade of British artillery, consisting of three companies, which was attached to the army of Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. He commanded the artillery at the battle of Minden on 1 Aug. 1759, when the companies were commanded by Captains Macbean, Drummond, and Foy. Prince Ferdinand, in thanking the troops after the battle, presented Phillips with a thousand crowns as a testimony of his satisfaction at his behaviour in the action. Carlyle, describing the effect of the British artillery at Minden, says, ‘Superlative practice on our right by Captain Phillips.’ Phillips is particularly mentioned in Smollett's ‘History’ for his distinguished services with the allies in Germany.

In the following year Phillips and his battery were attached to the English cavalry brigade under Lord Granby [see Manners, John, Lord Granby]. At the battle of Warburg on 30 July 1760 Phillips and his battery had to trot five miles in order to take part in the action. His fire across the Diemel was so severe that the French retired ‘with the utmost precipitation’ (Gent. Mag. xxx. 387). ‘Captain Phillips,’ says an eye-witness, ‘brought up the English artillery at a gallop and seconded the attack of the cavalry in a surprising manner’ (Operations of the Allied Army 1757 to 1762 under H. S. H. Prince Ferdinand, by an Officer of the British Forces, London, 1764). The Marquis of Granby stated that the British artillery commanded by Phillips made such expedition that they were in time to second the attack, and attributed the retreat of the French to the effect of the British guns and the dragoons. Phillips's conduct on the occasion called forth the praise of a generous enemy, the Marquis de Ternay (Traité de Tactique, i. 601). This was the first occasion on which artillery came into action at a gallop.

Phillips took part in most of the other engagements of the allies in 1760. He had already been promoted a brevet-major, and on 15 Aug. 1760 was promoted lieutenant-colonel in the army. On 25 May 1772 he was promoted colonel in the army. During his service in Germany Phillips established the first musical band in the royal artillery. On the conclusion of peace at the end of 1762 Phillips returned to England, and was stationed at Woolwich in command of a company of royal artillery.

In 1776 Phillips was serving in Canada with the army under Lieutenants-general Sir Guy Carleton and Burgoyne, and commanded the artillery, consisting of six companies, at the battles of Skenesborough, near Ticonderoga, and Mount Independence, North America. His brigade-major, Captain Bloomfield, of the royal artillery, was wounded, and his aide-de-camp, Captain Green of the 31st regiment, was killed. On 25 April 1777 Phillips was promoted regimental major, and, on 29 Aug. the same year, major-general in the army.

In the action of Stillwater, near Saratoga, on 19 Sept. 1777, Phillips commanded the left wing of the army, and at a critical moment he turned the action by leading up the 29th regiment. In this battle the fighting was so severe that in Captain Thomas Jones's battery Jones and all the non-commissioned officers and men of the battery, except five, were killed. Phillips took part in the battle of Saratoga on 7 Oct. 1777. He afterwards conducted the retreat from Saratoga, and was the second senior at the council of war on 13 Oct., when Burgoyne decided to surrender to the Americans. On 6 July 1780 Phillips was promoted, although a major-general in the army, to be a regimental lieutenant-colonel.

Early in 1781 Phillips, who had been a prisoner since the convention of Saratoga, was exchanged for the American general Lincoln, and joined the army under Lieutenant-general Sir Henry Clinton at New York. On 20 March he proceeded to Rhode Island with two thousand men, the élite of the army, to endeavour to prevent the French troops from sailing for the Chesapeake. The troops under his command were frequently engaged both with the enemy on shore and with the shipping.

Phillips was next ordered to Virginia with his troops to effect a junction with Arnold's force, which, after ravaging the country for some time almost unopposed, was now in a somewhat hazardous position. On effecting the junction, Phillips assumed command of the united force, consisting of about three thousand men. On 19 April Phillips ascended the James river to Barwell's Ferry, and on the following day landed at Williamsburg, the enemy retiring on his approach. On the 22nd he marched to Chickahominy, and on the 25th he moved to Petersburg. A small encounter with some militia took place within a mile of the town, in which the rebels were defeated with a loss of a hundred killed and wounded.

On 27 April Phillips marched to Chesterfield court-house and detached Arnold to a place called Osborne's, near which, in the James river, some armed vessels (Tempest 20 guns, Renown 26 guns, Jefferson 14 guns, and smaller craft) had been collected by the Americans for a special service. Phillips called upon the commodore to surrender, and, on his vowing to defend himself to the last extremity, Phillips directed that two six-pounder and two three-pounder guns should be taken to the bank of the river, and that fire should be opened upon the ships. Ultimately, the ships were set on fire and scuttled, the commodore and his crew escaping to the north bank of the river.

On 29 April 1781 Phillips marched with his main body in the direction of Manchester, which he reached on the following day, and where he destroyed a great quantity of stores. Arnold, with the remainder of the force, went up the river in boats. Although the Marquis de la Fayette, with a considerable force, was at Richmond, he made no attempt to stop the raid; and on the following day Phillips returned to Osborne's. Here he became seriously ill of fever; he was unable to perform any active duty. The force reached Petersburg, twenty-two miles south of Richmond, on 13 May. Phillips died the same day, and was buried in that town.

There is a portrait of him by F. Coles, R.A.; a good engraving has been made for the officers of the royal artillery, and is at Woolwich.

[Despatches; Minutes of Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution, iv. 248, vol. xiii. pt. i. p. 243; Duncan's History of the Royal Artillery, London, 1874; Kane's List of the Officers of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, Woolwich, 1869; Smollett's History of England; Carlyle's Frederick the Great, v. 450; Stedman's History of the American War, London, 1794; Andrews's History of the War with America.]

R. H. V.