After graduating from Franklin College at Athens, William moved to Marietta in 1851, studied law in the office of former Governor McDaniel and was admitted to the bar in 1852. In 1851 William married Catharine Anna Mongin Smith who died in 1853 and then was remarried to Mary Ann Olin Waterman in 1854. In 1856, Phillips was a partner in the Marietta Paper Mills and also was elected Solicitor General of the Blue Ridge Circuit. He served under Judge David Irwin, Judge George D Rice and Judge Joseph E Brown. There was a great fight for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1857 and William Phillips was in the convention. The convention could not agree on which of the three prominent men under consideration to select and the young man from Cobb startled the convention by proposing as a compromise candidate a young judge from his circuit, Joseph E Brown. He not only suggested Brown but seconded his nomination. Joe Brown was elected Governor and would go on to be Georgia's governor during the Civil War.
William Phillips would next be involved in one of the first dramatic incidents of the war when, as a Colonel on the staff of Governor Brown, he accompanied Governor Brown to Augusta on January 23rd 1861 to demand the surrender of the United States Arsenal located there. The arsenal contained a battery of artillery, 20000 stands of muskets and a large quantity of munitions and was guarded by a detachment of eighty Federal troops under command of Captain Arnold Elzey. Governor Brown requested Elzey to take his men and leave the state but Elzey refused and telegraphed Washington for instructions. Governor Brown called on 800 state militia in Augusta to prepare to take the arsenal by force. These troops were soon joined by several hundred additional troops from Burke County and Edgefield, SC. In the meantime Captain Elzey received instructions from his superiors to surrender the arsenal, but only if this could be done under honorable terms. Governor Brown, Colonel Lawton, Colonel Phillips and Colonel Walker met with Captain Elzey to arrange for the surrender. Not long afterwards, Elzey would resign his Federal commission and become a Confederate hero at the battle of First Manassas.
After the seizure of the arsenal at Augusta, Colonel Phillips was appointed a Brigadier General in command of the planned 4th Georgia State brigade and was sent back to Cobb County to organize camps of instruction. An officers camp (Camp Brown) was opened at Smyrna Camp ground and the brigade's officers began their training in May. A general training center (Camp McDonald) was opened at Big Shanty (present day Kennesaw, Ga) on the Western & Atlantic Railroad and the troops began their training in June. The brigade, as originally constituted, was made up of two regiments of heavy infantry (armed with smoothbore muskets), a battalion of light infantry (armed with rifled muskets), a battalion of cavalry, and a battalion of artillery.
Governor Brown initially envisioned this brigade to be one which would be used by Georgia to defend herself from Federal invasion. With Federal threats mounting in Virginia on the new Confederate government in Richmond, however, calls were soon being made upon the Georgia governor for greater numbers of troops. In an attempt to obtain a Confederate General's position for his friend and protege, the governor offered to send his fully equipped and trained, 2500 man 4th State Brigade to Virginia IF General Phillips would lead it and IF Brown had the right to recall it if Georgia were threatened. President Jefferson Davis, a West Pointer, had little use for non-professional military leaders and declined Brown's offer, maintaining that the Confederate Constitution did not give him the authority to accept any units from the states larger than a regiment. In reality, all of this seems to have been a squabble over who would have the privilege of naming Confederate Generals. An acrimonious series of exchanges then went on for a month while Brown and Davis refused to modify their positions. Finally, under increasing pressure from the press, Governor Brown yielded his position on August 1st and agreed to send the two heavy infantry regiments of the brigade to Lynchburg, Virginia. The two regiments headed north on August 3rd and 4th and were subsequently mustered into Confederate service as the 18th and 19th Georgia Volunteer Infantry regiments under their Colonels, William T Wofford and William A Boyd. Brown then attempted to get Davis to agree to accept the remaining rifle, cavalry and artillery battalions as a Legion. Once again, Davis insisted on modifying Brown's proposal by declining to accept the, only partially formed, artillery battalion as part of a Legion. What was finally agreed upon was a Legion comprised of a six company rifle battalion and a four company cavalry battalion commanded by William Phillips, who would be commissioned a Confederate Colonel. Orders were issued and the Legion entrained north for Lynchburg, Va.
Arriving in Lynchburg in early August, the Legion encamped at the fairground two miles outside the city and was formally mustered into Confederate service on August 9th. Throughout the next month, Colonel Phillips worked to complete the training and outfitting of his command which was eager to move to the front. Orders finally arrived during the second week of September directing the Legion to move north into the mountains of western Virginia to join General John B Floyd's army near Sewell Mountain.
The Legion departed Lynchburg on Monday September 23rd, travelling first by train and then on foot to reach Lewisburg. At the end of the railroad at Jackson River, the Legion detrained for the fifty mile march to Lewisburg. Now on foot the troops marched along in one of the worst storms ever to take place in September in that region. The roads became nearly impassable with horses floundering through deep mud and men splattered from head to toe. Heavy rains fell continually for days and, because the wagons could not keep up, the men slept in the rain and mud without tents. William D Harris wrote his wife that, "Colonel Phillips does even take and give up his horse to the boys on foot, rolls up his pants and wades in the mud and water and totes the sick on his back. This he did yesterday and the day before." Upon reaching White Sulphur Springs on September 27th, some of the Legion camped for the night while an advance guard pressed on to Lewisburg. The next day the rest of the Legion moved on to Lewisburg and camped on a hill just outside that village. Behind them, along their line of march, men were strewn from Jackson River to Lewisburg sick with measles, mumps and, worst of all, dreaded typhoid fever. On the morning of the 28th, Colonel Phillips received orders from General Floyd directing him to bring the Legion and join him immediately at Meadow Bluff for a subsequent move forward to Sewell Mountain. Arriving at Meadow Bluff on September 29th, the Legion prepared for another march forward to confront Rosecrans army at Sewell Mountain. The Legion and General Loring's troops moved forward the following day to join Floyd's men already at Sewell and confronted Rosecrans roughly equal force in their front. Rosecrans was having his own problems with weather and supply and when it became apparent that he had a strong southern force before him he quietly slipped away and, on the evening of October 5th, retreated towards Gauley Bridge at the upper end of the Kanawha River valley.
On learning of Rosecrans withdrawal, General Robert E Lee commanding all southern forces in the region, ordered a pursuit. General Floyd ordered the Phillips Legion's cavalry battalion out to see what had become of the Union army. When the small cavalry force encountered the strong rear guard of the retreating Federal column they were easily repulsed. Southern infantry following the cavalry had barely cleared camp when they met the returning cavalry, forcing Lee to call the whole thing off. The two forces had faced each other across a gorge at Sewell Mountain for over a week, during which period the Confederates, poorly sheltered from the winds and rains, suffered severely. Disease swept through the army and numbers of men were now dying every day. General Floyd stated that, "It cost us more men sick and dead than the batle of Manassas." Worse was yet to come.
Winter was now approaching, the Federals had retreated back over the mountains, snow had fallen and the roads were almost impassable. General Lee was planning his return to Richmond and General Loring was preparing to move his 2500 troops back to Huntersville. General Floyd, however, wanted one more crack at the Federals. With the relatively fresh troops of the Legion and other reinforcements, Floyd wanted to strike a blow in an attempt to clear the Federals from the Kanawha Valley before winter entirely closed the campaign in the rugged mountains. General Lee acquiesced, directing Floyd to prepare his troops secretly and quickly to operate on the south side of the Kanawha River. Lee anticipated Floyd moving to the head of the Kanawha River to intercept the Federal lines of communication, while he would attempt to press Rosecrans front if conditions permitted. General Loring's force would be held at Sewell Mountain for a short time to secure the road while Floyd's operations matured. Orders were issued on October 11th to march the following morning and Floyd set out with his entire command. William Phillips and his Legion led the column as it began it's roundabout journey for the Kanawha Valley. Backtracking over difficult mountain roads, the Legion passed through Green Sulphur Springs and from there marched to Raleigh Court House (today's Beckley, W.Va.). The hardships of this march are difficult to imagine. Days of rain had made the roads into mudholes. At one point the entire column was forced to halt to build a new stretch of road four miles in length. After ten days of hard marching and road rebuilding Floyd's command reached Fayetteville around noon on October 21st. Without halting, they marched on to the junction of Millers Ferry Road and the Raleigh Turnpike, three miles west of Fayette Court House. Rosecrans 13000 Federals occupied both banks of the New River and controlled the north bank of the Kanawha River from Gauley Bridge to Kanawha Falls. The weakness of the Federal position lay in the fact that supply steamers could not navigate this far upriver, but had to offload to wagons below Kanawha Falls. The supply wagons had to the negotiate a narrow road running along the river's north bank for six miles to reach the Federal headquarters at Gauley Bridge. A large mountain called Cotton Hill stood just across the river on the south bank and its heights commanded theFederals wagon road on the north shore. Floyd advanced a portion of the Legion cavalry, some seventy men with Colonel Phillips leading them, and operating dismounted this force quickly chased the Federal skirmishers back across the New River without firing a shot. Once across, however, the Federals brought up two artillery pieces and opened fire and kept it up until around 6PM. The Legion held its own, suffering only two men wounded, and Colonel Phillips remained bravely in the thick of the fight.
After this opening action, Floyd established camp at the Dickerson farm near the junction of the Millers Ferry and Raleigh Roads. The Legion moved into woods along the New River across from Hawks Nest. By October 28th, Floyd's entire 4000 man force was encamped on or near Cotton Hill, overlooking the main Federal camp at and below Gauley Bridge. Floyd now pleaded with the Confederate War Department to send the reinforcements he needed to go over to the offensive and retake the Kanawha Valley with its important supplies of salt. He had only to seize the river and road on the north bank to isolate the Federals at Gauley Bridge. They would be forced to attack Floyd in the valley in a position of his choosing or retreat to the north, abandoning the Kanawha Valley to the southerners. Since Rosecrans force outnumbered him by a three to one margin his request for an additional 6000 troops did not seem unreasonable. Arguing against this was the rapid approach of winter and the near collapse of the Confederate supply line over increasingly impassable roads back to the Virginia railheads. Robert E Lee finally determined that it was impractical to assume the offensive so late in the season , but Floyd stubbornly held to his position at Cotton Hill even considering going into winter quarters in the vicinity in hopes of resuming the campaign in the spring. Rosecrans forced Floyd's hand however by crossing troops above and below Floyd's position and then moving to get behind him and cut him off from his retreat routes to the south. Fortunately for Floyd, local citizens warned him of the move as it was developing and the southerners slipped out of the trap on the evening of November 12th. It was a near thing as the Legion's cavalry bringing up the rear of the retreating force passed through a key intersection with the Federals only one mile away. Federal pursuit caught up with the Confederate column near McCoy's Mill on November 15th, but determined resistance by the rear guard convinced the Federals to retreat.
At the time of the retreat from Cotton Hill, Colonel Phillips was in Fayetteville having come down with a severe case of typhoid fever. After resting there for two days, the retreating army hurried through and a very weak Colonel Phillips was forced to join the retreating column. The weather was terrible with constant freezing rain pouring down and the roads were nearly impassable. Passing Raleigh Court House, the command rested for several days before resuming the march to Peterstown. Colonel Phillips remained very ill and returned home to Marietta while Floyd and the Confederate War Department argued about what to do with Floyd's troops during the winter. In late December, the Legion was ordered to report to Coosawhatchie, South Carolina where their new department commander would be none other than Robert E Lee who had also been sent south.
While the Legion happily settled into their new assignment of guarding the Charleston & Savannah Railroad from Federal raiders operating out of Port Royal on the coast, Colonel Phillips remained in Marietta still recuperating from his near fatal bout with typhoid. As he improved, Governor Brown once more took up his quest to obtain a General's commission for his friend. Phillips learned in February that Tom Cobb had received approval to increase the size of his Legion (The Cobb Legion) and asked the Governor why he should not be allowed to do the same. Governor Brown attempted to help, writing to Jefferson Davis on March 22nd asking for approval to increase the size of Phillips Legion. He even went so far as to sweeten his offer by agreeing that such increase would be made above and beyond Georgia's assigned troop quotas. Davis responded on April 7th refusing the request and also stating that he had not authorized an increase of Cobb's Legion's infantry to exceed that of a normal infantry regiment. This caused Tom Cobb to become furious at what he perceived to be Davis's reversal of a previous commitment. Cobb was finally given the choice of commanding a regiment of cavalry, of infantry, or a slightly larger Legion. Cobb agreed to accept the latter offer and remained the Colonel commanding the Cobb Legion. Colonel Phillips rejoined the Legion at Hardeeville in March and was enthusiastically welcomed back, the men serenading him that evening and he responding with a patriotic speech. A J Reese wrote that the men liked Colonel Phillips better tha Lt Colonel Seaborn Jones, who had commanded in Phillip's absence. He also noted that Colonel Phillips still did not look too well.
Davis finally agreed to permit a small expansion of the Legion and Colonel Phillips returned to Marietta to help organize and forward three new infantry companies and two new cavalry companies to South Carolina. These new companies (L through P) began to arrive in Hardeeville in April 1862 and continued to arrive until mid May. The experienced companies trained the new recruits and detachments patrolled the railroad.
To the north in Virginia, George B McClellan's massive Army of the Potomac was driven back from Richmond in late June, but only at the cost of tremendous southern casualties. With McClellan still just a short distance south of Richmond at Harrisons Landing, a renewed offensive was expected at ant time and the call went out for reinforcements from further south. General Drayton was placed in command of a brigade comprised of the Phillips Legion, 50th and 51st Ga, 15th SC and 3rd SC Battalion and ordered north to Richmond on July 17th, 1862. Colonel Phillips had recovered his health sufficiently to rejoin his men and led them north on an arduous rail journey, arriving at the southern capital at the beginning of August. When Robert E Lee perceived that McClellan was not going to attack, he sent Stonewall Jackson north after the army of John Pope and then sent Longstreet along as well in an attempt to smash Pope before he could be joined by McClellan. Drayton's command, including the Legion, had been assigned to David R Jones Divison of Longstreet's wing of the army and they departed Richmond on August 14th, headed north for Gordonsville.
What happened to Colonel Phillips can be told in his own words from an affidavit filed with his application for a veteran's pension in 1907. He states that, "At Gordonsville the seeds of the typhoid fever and broken constitution caused thereby, I was prostrated and carried to a hospital and afterwards to this officer's hospital under Dr Reed of Savannah, Ga and the special care of Dr Tennant of Marietta, Ga. After several months of treatment I was by the physicians pronounced unfit for active service in the army and discharged." His hospitalization was in Lynchburg, Virginia until furloughed home to Marietta for convalesence. He returned to Richmond in January 1863 and was found unfit for duty by a medical examining board whereupon he resigned his commission on February 13th and returned to Georgia. This ended Colonel Phillips official connection with the Legion that bore his name. Colonel Phillip's pension application tells us what happened from this point. "Afterwards when Georgia was threatened I accepted the command of a Battalion of State Troops serving under the orders of Confederate authorities but still suffering from the effects of the original attack was again prostrated and for months confined to my bed in a dark room." Records show that William Phillips was placed in command of the 9th Battalion of Cavalry, Georgia State Guards as a Major on August 4th, 1863. It is not clear just how long he remained with this unit before he again became too ill to serve. His pension application continues......"Dr.Wendall of Murfreesboro, Dr Parker and others of my surgeons labored to save my eye which they said had been affected by the first attack of fever contracted in West Virginia as above stated but the right eye was destroyed and I have been, as the physicians declared I would be, substantially blind in my right eye from then until today. Again, with partial recovery, I was serving under General Howell Cobb's orders at Newnan, Georgia when General Lee surrendered and was paroled at Macon, Georgia in May 1865 as I now remember."
After the war, William Phillips was assistant attorney general and served several terms in the Georgia legislature. Phillips was the prime promoter and builder of the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad and was it's president. William Phillips passed away in his Marietta home on September 24th, 1908 at 84 years of age and was buried in the Marietta City Cemetery.
George Gilman Smith who had served as the Legion's chaplain early in the war until suffering a crippling wound in Maryland in 1862 wrote of Colonel Phillips..............
The dear old man who never meant an injury intentionally and never failed to do every man a service, who next to God and his wife, has worshipped Georgia, deserves more than Georgia can ever pay him. Other men of fewer parts have won great honors and far greater wealth, but no man ever worked for Georgia more untiringly and unselfishly than this son of Habersham."
Texans in the Civil War