Somewhere in the outer northeast angle of old Blandford Church, in Petersburg, Virginia, lays the hidden body of Major General William Phillips, a British officer who died in this town on 13 May 1781, far away from his English homeland. Since his death of a contagious fever over two hundred years ago, this extraordinary officer has remained in almost total obscurity.
It was not until 1914 that any particular recognition was finally given to Phillips' burial site either by the British or Americans. In that year, the Francis Bland Randolph Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a memorial outside the south wall of Blandford Church, which simply states:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM PHILLIPS
OF THE BRITISH ARMY WHO DIED AT "BOLLINGBROOK"
MAY 13, 1781
AND WHOSE REMAINS LIE BURIED IN THIS CHURCH YARD
ERECTED BY THE FRANCES BLAND RANDOLPH CHAPTER D.A.R.
William Phillips was a brilliant soldier, artillerist, and leader, and Thomas Jefferson described him as "the proudest man of the proudest nation on earth." By whatever description, Phillips' final claim to fame was to have conducted one of the British army's most successful campaigns in the American Revolution. Moreover, to the welfare of Petersburg and Chesterfield County, one of Phillips' standing orders to his army was that the "private property and the persons of individuals not taken in arms, are to be under the protection of the troops." Therein, by his own view against wanton destruction, Phillips saved Petersburg from war's common devastation following the great battle fought there on 25 April 1781.
Born in 1731, Phillips was descended from an ancient line of Welsh warriors dating back to the period of the Roman conquests of England and Wales. Though his ancestors included several knights and barons who loyally served the throne of England over many centuries, William Phillips was not born into any titled nobility. He was the child and grandchild of English careersoldiers. At the age of sixteen he was enrolled into the Royal Artillery Academy at Woolwich, England as a Gentleman Cadet. There the young Phillips excelled in every facet of gunnery and artillery warfare, and gained early recognition by his superiors.
When England allied with Germany against the Austrians and French in the Seven Years War, Captain Phillips was given command of a brigade of artillery and deployed to Germany with the British Expeditionary Force. In that war he was credited with great gallantry and ingenuity for his artillery expertise and awarded his heroism. During the Battle of Warburg, Phillips executed a completely unprecedented maneuver with his artillery brigade by galloping his heavy guns over five miles into battle and unleashing a ferocious bombardment that cutoff the entrapped French army. By the end of the war, Phillips had gained great acclaim for himself, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and had established a brigade musical organization which became today's Royal Artillery Band.
Following the Seven Years War, Phillips became Inspector General of the Artillery serving in the Mediterranean and then Commander of Artillery at the artillery school at Woolwich, England. In 1772 he was promoted to Colonel and further appointed as Lieutenant Governor of Windsor Castle. Following his promotion to Brigadier General in 1774, he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Borough-bridge in Yorkshire.
With the outbreak of hostilities between the American Colonies and England, Phillips was promoted to Major General of Artillery he was transferred to North America to command all artillery in the Provinces of Canada. Phillips was assigned as deputy and wing commander to Lieutenant General John Burgoyne's campaign from Montreal, which it culminated in disaster near Saratoga, New York. Throughout that campaign and in the heat of the heaviest combat, Phillips displayed the greatest heroism and leadership with total disregard for his personal safety.
On 17 October 1777 Burgoyne surrendered and his entire army, then known as the troops of the Convention, was marched to Boston to be held until they could be exchanged. Phillips became commander of the Convention Troops with Burgoyne's return to England and shortly thereafter the "prisoners" of the Convention were moved to Albemarle Barracks near Charlottesville, Virginia. The circumstances for the British prisoners, was terrible at best, and Phillips was constantly engaged in attempts to clothe, feed, and house his troops.
Two important occurrences came about during Phillips' captivity in Virginia. One was the very civil treatment of the British soldiers by their American captives, an act, which Phillips would not later forget. The other was the personal hospitality afforded to Phillips and his staff by Thomas Jefferson who frequently entertained the British senior officers at Monticello. By late 1779, Phillips, along with his staff, was finally moved to New York and exchanged back into British hands.
On the first of January 1781, the British sent an expedition into the Chesapeake Bay of Virginia, under the command of their new Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. Arnold conducted a lightening raid up the James River to Richmond, severely damaging and destroying American logistics lines and industrial support to the war. He then returned to the Chesapeake, fortifying his army at Portsmouth. Knowing this force was too small to conduct any further operations in Virginia, Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander in Chief in New York, sent Phillips with a large reinforcement to Portsmouth. Phillips was to continue operations in the state, to further interrupt American logistics lines between the northern and southern states.
Phillips arrived in March 1781 and on 18 April began a major campaign up the James River, striking at Yorktown, Williamsburg, the Virginia State Naval docks on the Chickahominy River, and subsequently landed at Westover Plantation. After a brief rest for his troops, Phillips then moved his fleet and army to City Point, landing on the 24th. The morning of the 25th he marched his army overland towards his primary target-Petersburg. Under Major General von Steuben, there was only a small army of slightly more than one thousand militia, to confront Phillips' two thousand five hundred veteran troops. Notwithstanding the overwhelming odds, the determination and discipline of the Virginia militia withstood Phillips' attack on Petersburg, holding the invading British at bay for upwards of three hours before yielding the town.
Two days following the battle, Phillips marched his army north on the final leg of his campaign, burning the log, military training barracks at Chesterfield Court House, destroying several war and cargo ships at Osborne's Landing, and burning the foundry and numerous warehouses at West-ham. In the mean-time, the American regulars of Major General Lafayette's army arrived at Richmond in time to prevent Phillips from taking the Capitol City. It was then that Phillips decided that his expedition had been completely successful and ordered his army back down the James River to Portsmouth.
During the movement down river, Phillips fell violently ill with a fever, which is believed to have been either malaria or typhus. A few days later orders arrived from Lieutenant General Cornwallis, in North Carolina, directing Phillips to meet him in Petersburg. Phillips' army arrived in Petersburg on 9 May, however the General was so ill that General Arnold had to assume command of the army. On the 10th Lafayette's army arrived on the heights north of Petersburg (now Colonial Heights) and briefly bombarded the British army in the town, including Bolling-brook, the home in which Phillips lay dying. On the morning of the 13th Major General William Phillips died. Late that same evening, his body was taken to Blandford Church Cemetery and buried in a secret location.
Numerous epitaphs were written to honor this great British general, however Captain Johann Ewald of the German Jagers perhaps wrote the most encompassing description of Phillips. "One saw in 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."