Phillips, William

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Phillips, William

PHILLIPS, WILLIAM. (c.1731–1781). British army officer. Phillips entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, on 1 August 1740 and rose with a rapidity that suggests powerful patronage. Early in 1747 he became a "lieutenant fireworker"; from 1750 to 1756 he was quartermaster to the Royal Regiment of Artillery; and from 1 April 1756 he was a first lieutenant and aide-decamp to Sir John Ligonier, lieutenant general of the ordnance. During the Seven Years' War he served in Germany, where he founded the Royal Artillery's first band. In 1758 he was given a brigade of artillery, and at Minden (1759) he led it through a wood to engage the French guns. At Warburg (30 July 1760) he brought his guns up at a gallop to support Lord Granby's cavalry brigade, an unprecedented feat that impressed friend and foe alike. He was made a lieutenant colonel in the army on 15 August. From 1763 to 1775 he served in the Mediterranean and Woolwich and became lieutenant governor of Windsor Castle; during this time he also had two affairs and six children. Through his friendship with Sir Henry Clinton, he held a parliamentary seat from 1774 to 1780.

Phillips served under John Burgoyne and Guy Carleton in Canada in 1776, and from July to December was commandant at St. Johns, where he supervised the building of Carleton's Lake Champlain flotilla. In 1777 he took charge of the preparatory and supply arrangements for Burgoyne's expedition, being promoted major of artillery in April. His diligence prompted Burgoyne to give him command of mixed formations in the field, and on 5-6 July it was his energetic siting of four guns on Mount Defiance, dominating Ticonderoga and the bridge that was the Americans' only means of retreat, that forced the rebels to abandon the fort. At Stillwater, New York, in the Battle of Saratoga, he led the British left (including Baron Riedesel's Germans) and on 19 September personally led the Fourth Foot into battle in an attack that saved the day. After Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga on 17 October 1777, Phillips became a prisoner of war, taking command of the Convention Army upon Burgoyne's departure in April 1778. His captors so disliked his persistent protests about treatment of his men that, when in June he vociferously denounced the shooting of an officer by a sentry, they briefly locked him up. During the appalling winter march to Virginia (November 1778–1779), Phillips borrowed money to keep his men fed. In August he and Riedesel were paroled, an agreement honored by Congress only after Phillips protested to Washington. Reaching New York in November 1779, he was adviser to his friend Sir Henry Clinton and in July 1780 was promoted lieutenant colonel in the artillery. In October he and Riedesel were formally exchanged in October, and thus free to serve once more.

Clinton sent him with two thousand men to the Chesapeake, where he was to join and take over from Arnold, secure the James and Elizabeth Rivers, and support Charles Cornwallis's operations. On 25 April he defeated a body of militia near Petersburg, Virginia; two days later his artillery destroyed a small American flotilla at Osborne's landing, on the James River; and on 30 April he directed a successful raid against rebel stores at Manchester. The next day at Osborne's landing he went down with typhoid fever and died at Petersburg on the 13 May 1781.

SEE ALSO Burgoyne's Offensive; Champlain Squadrons; Convention Army; Osborne's (James River), Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; Riedesel, Baron Friedrich Adolphus; Saratoga Surrender.


Davis, Robert P. Where a Man Can Go: Major General William Phillips, British Royal Artillery, 1731–1781. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

                            revised by John Oliphant

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