At least one British officer observed the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, from the Confederate lines. Captain Phillips of the Grenadier Guards had taken the opportunity of a leave of absence in the late autumn of 1862 to leave his assigned post in Canada, journey into the Confederacy, and received permission to stay at General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry headquarters.
Barrie Almond of the American Civil War Round Table of the United Kingdom has detailed done research on Lewis Guy Phillips. A well-educated young man, Phillips chose the British army for his career and started with a purchased commission for Ensign/Lieutenant. His first promotion came on June 24, 1859, and in 1861 he was sent to Canada. He was about 31 years old in 1862. By the end of his career in July 1885, Phillips attained the honorary rank of brevet Major General. In his research, Almond has uncovered that Phillips may have been smuggled into the United States and into Confederate-held Virginia to avoid a diplomatic crisis.[i]
According to Heros Von Borcke, one of Stuart’s staff officers and a Prussian military adventurer, Captain Phillips arrived a few days before the Battle of Fredericksburg and was a “pleasant addition to our little military family.” He took Phillips to witness a review of General Jenkin’s South Carolina Brigade. The English officer remarked that the Confederate infantry “would not do for a parade in Hyde Park, with their motley uniforms and their style of marching,” that added that the soldiers “looked like work.” Von Borcke made certain to point out a regimental flag carried by Hampton’s Legion that “Mrs. Hampton…had made…out of a robe worn by her several years previous at a ‘Drawing Room’ of her Majesty Queen Victoria.” After the review, Phillips was escorted to General “Stonewall” Jackson’s headquarters for dinner and some “agreeable hours” of conversation or entertainment.[ii]
Von Borcke frequently found any possible excuse to organize a party during his time on Stuart’s staff and determined that their guest should experience some Virginian hospitality on the evening of December 10. Securing invitations to a country ball hosted ten miles from Fredericksburg, approximately nine men, including Phillips, piled into the headquarters’ infamous yellow wagon and set off into the darkness. They managed to wreck the wagon twice before reaching the party house. According to Von Borcke, the reward of “many pretty faces and sparkling eyes worth looking into” was enough to brave the icy roads and he was found it “quite delightful to see our foreign friend winding through the mazes of many bounding quadrilles and Virginia reels with an evident enjoyment of the same.”[iii]
Returning to camp in a loaned wagon over the treacherous roads, Captain Phillips had little time to rest. While the Yankees bombarded Fredericksburg, the Confederate cavalry staff worked with Jackson’s infantry to get the defensive lines established along Prospect Hill. Then, the cavalry settled in on Jackson’s right flank, covering Hamilton’s Crossing and beyond.
On December 13, 1862, Captain Phillips declared that he wanted a better view of the battle and announced that he would watch from the high ground now called Lee’s Hill, which sits closer to the center of the Confederate line and would’ve had a panoramic view at that time. Von Borcke wrote about the moments as Phillips said good-bye on the eve of battle:
John Pelham, commander of the Stuart Horse Artillery, accepted the loaned gift, “tying the ribbon around his cap” and riding away to his guns on the right of the long Confederate line. Presumably the Englishman’s ribbon went with Pelham as he advanced a cannon to the Union infantry’s flank and fired some of the opening shots of the battle that day.
Our parting had just that little admixture of sadness in it which came from the involuntary misgiving that possibly we were bidding each other a final farewell. Captain Phillips had worn in camp a narrow red and blue striped necktie, consisting of a bit of the ribbon of his regiment, the Grenadier Guards, which, at the moment of leaving us, he handed to Pelham, with the request that he would wear it as a talisman during the battle, and return it afterwards to the owner to be preserved as a relique.[iv]
If Captain Phillips spent most of the battle day at Lee’s Hill, he could have observed both sites of the Union attacks, the charge across the fields toward the railroad tracks and Prospect Hill (modern day Slaughter Pen Farm battlefield) and the repeated “diversionary” attacks from the town toward Marye’s Heights. He may have been present when an exploding cannon on Lee’s Hill nearly killed Generals Lee and Longstreet.
By nightfall, Captain Phillips returned to the cavalry’s headquarters and “congratulated us [cavalry officers] heartily upon having safely passed through the perils of the day, and…spoke with enthusiasm of the magnificent view of the battle which he had obtained from Lee’s Hill. With a modest smile, Pelham returned to the Captain the bit of regimental ribbon he had worn as a talisman during the fight, its gay colours just a little blackened by powder-smoke, for it had flaunted from the cap…in the very atmosphere of Death.”[v]
Unfortunately, Von Borcke did not write more in his volumes for publications about Captain Phillips of the Grenadier Guards, and one assumes that Phillips returned to Canada shortly after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Like many of the American soldiers, the Englishman probably never forgot what he witnessed on December 13, 1862.
[i] Barrie Almond, “Captain Lewis Guy Phillips.” Accessed on 12/12/2021. https://www.acwrt.org.uk/post/captain-lewis-guy-phillips
[ii] Heros Von Borcke, Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence, 1867. Page 281-282
[iii] Ibid, 282-285.
[iv] Ibid, 298.
[v] Ibid, 312.