William Beynon Phillips was a Union officer of the Civil War. On July 30, 1864, he was taken prisoner at the Crater. He spent the final eight months of the war as a prisoner of war at Camp Asylum in Columbia, South Carolina.
Following the end of the Civil War, William settled in the Welsh community of Hyde Park, Pennsylvania; married his sweetheart, Annie, and started a family. A daughter was born in 1866 and a son in 1868. By all appearances, his life was normal. He started a successful store with his brother-in-law and there were no signs of the trouble that would follow.
But soon, everything changed. Like many other Union veterans tortured by their war experience, William Phillips opted to leave behind his prewar life and kin, heading west to San Francisco. It was there that this highly educated and well-read man of great ability rented a room in the Overland House and took up work painting houses. He also began soothing his woes with alcohol. In two extant letters that he wrote to Annie, William Phillips describes in wrenching detail his desperate battle with alcoholism. Here is the first of the letters and the first of a series of posts about Phillips. Thanks to reader Greg Taylor for his willingness to share these letters with the public.
Overland House, San Francisco
Thursday Evening, Nov.13th 1873.
My Dear Annie, Minnie, Nellie & little Johnny,
I was made most happy on Tuesday Evening by receiving your letter dated the 30th Oct and to find that you were all well, you can’t imagine how anxious I had been looking for a letter from you. I went steady, every night, since the Thursday previous, to the letter box and went away each time disappointed until I got it, and I found it an oasis in a great desert where I was most abundantly refreshed and restored. I was in the blues all day on Sunday, Monday & Tuesday was pretty blue too, but yesterday and today is brighter to me by far- so you can see what effect your letter has, and also the importance of being prompt in answering. I am very glad that Minnie has a home and that she able to form syllables she & her little sister go to school. Oh! How much I would give if I could see the little darlings, every child almost I meet on the streets, I cast a longing look after trying for some resemblance to little Minnie, Nellie or John Fofalus. The only place that I can get any satisfaction is at a great doll store on Kearney St. I pass there every night for there is a doll in the window that resembles Minnie, or at least I think so, and that’s enough. Don’t force school too much on little Nell, she is too young yet, and besides being so precocious it may hurt her. I am very proud that Johnny is so healthy & fat. You must be very careful that he don’t get the comp. Keep something on hand for it, for fear, the little darling, how much I would like to see him? I was glad to hear that Mirna and her husband now, of course, had decided on that very important step, I wish them much joy and that their voyage of life will be a happy & prosperous one and that they will be abundantly blessed. I should have liked very much to be on hand, having seen Sue & Jenna off, and of course (yourself). There is no one left now but Johnnie & when he walks the gang-plank I suppose he will dispense with the family to a certain extent.
I presume the weather in Penn. is cold & frosty, perhaps you have snow. It is wonderful fine here; everything is green & in full bloom, the gardens are growing, and you can see them cultivate cabbages, turnips, carrots, radish etc. etc. as if it was the height of summer. I was painting a gentleman’s house today and we had to throw sheeting over the flowers at the base of the house, so as not to daub them with paint spots. Every place we paint almost we have to deal gently with the sides and front of the house so as not to hurt the flowers and creeping vines. It is a wonderful climate, in fact the Italy of the American continent- I am getting along swimmingly with my trade, and am not, already, ashamed to stand my work alongside of old hands. I spent this afternoon painting green blinds same size as on father’s front parlor windows. I can paint a pair of them, both sides, in 10 minutes, that’s good work, “you can bet your life”. They are particular in painting here. Every little crack or hole, or flaw, or roughness has to be puttied & color laid even; when I have a little time I shall draw you a front elevation & plan of the houses in general here, they look splendid, I tell you, nobody has a garden around his house, the front sides, and rear being dedicated to grass, fruits, and flowers; vegetables are so cheap and abundant and always in season that it don’t pay- There is also no canning of fruit-no need of it; they don’t have any cellars either, no need of ice in summer nor protection from frost in winter, the basement is generally made into a wine room & cooking room, and place for the help to work in. There is no need of depending for rain, and you would not get it if you did, only in it’s season which is about now commencing. They have hydrants and plenty of water from top to bottom and running pipes all over the ground to which they attach hose and sprinkling snozzle to keep the grass, plants, and flowers in moisture.
Friday evening: I missed the a.m.
There is great excitement here just now over a great race to come off at Oakland (just across the bay) for $20,000.00. There are five entries; “True Blue”, “Hubbard”, “Joe Daniels”, & “Thad Stevens”. The last horse is a Californian. They are to run on Saturday, 4 miles & repeat. One man has given $2500.00 for the privilege of selling pools and another fellow has baked for one tent of (unintelligible) 600 loaves of bread. The California horse was offered in Frisco once for S150, and now $25,000 will not buy him. You need not think by this that I am a sporting character, nor that I am going to the race-I won’t go—-
I heed your caution about the drinking and comply with your request about a pledge to Maggie which you will find enclosed, and by the grace of God I will continually pray that I will keep it. I hesitated to give it for I had promised you so often and broke them that I was dubious about doing so to Maggie being afraid that I has not purpose enough to stand firmly, the habit having such a hold on me and also being so sensitive about it that I was to all intents ruined, yet I hope again to stand on my feet again and stay so. I hope that you will pray for me and am very proud of your kind words to me that your love for me is as fresh as ever. Mine is stronger to you, my dearest, than ever it was and I hope & pray the time will come around quickly when I can again have you and me and the little ones on our own hearthstone happy and prosperous. I must draw my letter to a close, it is bedtime for me half an hour ago. I send a father’s loving kisses to my dear little Minnie, Willie and John. I let you know that I will write you again Sunday Evening. I have just read the papers and make the request that you please go to Scranton and have an ambrotype, without case, taken of yourself and children and send me in your next letter, don’t delay for I am anxious to have it , it will do me good. Put it in a letter, and it will come through all right. Give my respects to Father and Mother and Johnnie and the rest without mentioning names, except “brother Peck and sister Peck. I mention them, being newcomers, and being yet in the “anxious seat”.
Now dear love, I send you my warmest love and affection, how happy I would be to meet you but it is yet distant, but hope buoys me hope, and faith keeps me hopeful. Good night, my dear wife, and God have you in his tender keep. Your loving husband,