Southern Belle hauled to prison for laughing at Union funeral

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Eugenia Levy Phillips

Mrs. Eugenia Levy Phillips

New Orleans, Louisiana, July 1, 1862: Our current Civil War took a turn for the worse, Monday, for Eugenia Levy Phillips, 42, tart tongued Southern Belle socialite and wife of former Washington DC attorney and former Alabama legislator, Phillip Phillips, as she was hauled away to prison “until the War is over,” confined to the desolate sandbar off the Mississippi coast called Ship Island.

Her crime? She laughed at a funeral procession of a Union officer that was passing in front of her home here in New Orleans over the weekend.

She was banished to the sandy treeless island 11 miles off the Mississippi coast by the commanding officer of the Union occupying forces here, Major General Benjamin F. Butler. General Butler has been in absolute, total control of New Orleans and its 170,000 citizens since April when the city surrendered to the Union forces.

The ordeal began for Levy Phillips, yesterday, when she was escorted from her home to the “Hall of Justice” by a soldier and her husband. When she arrived, she was told by Union officers in the foyer that she must see General Butler by herself. She rolled her eyes in icy contempt and told them emphatically, “None but physical force can make me go alone in that room; so I advise some of you valiant men to get a rope, attach it to my neck, and pull me in.”

She folded her arms on her chest, sat down on a bench with her fierce contemptuous gaze dancing from one officer to another. The men shuffled and stared at the floor a moment; then, the officers sought consul with General Butler.

Mr. Phillips was allowed to accompany Mrs. Phillips into the General’s office.

Major General Benjamin Butler

Union Army Major General Benjamin Butler

As the Phillips’s entered the room, the General was surrounded by a dozen or so officers. He immediately screamed in pure fury, “You were seen laughing and mocking at the remains of a Federal officer. I do not call you a common woman of the town, but an uncommonly vulgar one, and I sentence you to Ship Island for the (duration of the) War!”

Mr. Phillips’ returned the rage: “General Butler, I will not allow this language to my wife. I know who you are while you know who I am!” At this, the General bellowed: “Arrest this man, gag him, take him away.” Mrs. Phillips turned around, cool and calm, touched Mr. Phillips, saying: “Mr. P., go out and leave this man to me.” Reluctantly, he left.

During the proceedings that followed, she showed no fear or remorse whatsoever as she stood defiantly before the General and patiently told him and all the blue coats around him how ridiculous the charges against her were. Her arrogant attitude made the General even more furious. Levy Phillips looked General Butler straight in his eyes and virtually spewed her defense, saying her laughter that day had sprung from her gaiety during one of her nine children’s party taking place in her home. With the acidity that can only be ascribed to an arch-secessionist speaking to northern vermin, she condescendingly raised her eyebrows, flicked her wrist in the air and told the General, “I was simply in good spirits the day of the funeral.” This enraged the General even more, but he wrote out her sentence in a seething slow scrawl, hoping she would think about it and beg him not to send her away. She never blinked. Her sentenced was carried out post-haste.

Not allowed to go home, Levy Phillips was whisked away by train and, then, by boat to the dreaded Ship Island. For inexplicable reasons, General Butler did allow her maid servant, Phebe, a faithful Irish woman, to accompany her into incarceration.  Much of New Orleans is shocked and saddened by this harsh sentence on such “a delicate Southern lady.”

Harpers Weekly Cartoon

Harper's Weekly cartoon from July of 1862.


Ship Island

Ship Island today split in two by Hurricane Camille. Now West Ship Island (foreground) and East Ship Island

For the next 3 ½ months, Levy Phillips and her servant, Phebe, lived in what they described as a wooden box perched on a sand dune in the middle of Ship Island, “eating vile beans and spoiled beef,” drinking filtered saltwater, and listening to the gutter language of the guards directed at them which was so horrendous she could not repeat or write those words. The stench of the Confederate POW camp, also located on the island—housing hundreds of Rebel soldiers—wafted over the tiny island night and day, making living conditions even more miserable, as “venomous insects settling on our faces, drew blood and tortured us every second.”

During her stay, General Butler continued to try and break her spirit through messages of feigned concern. She wrote her husband in a letter, “Ask no favors.  Let me rot where I am, rather (than beg the General for my release).”

But, in mid-September, after her husband pulled every string he had to pull, she and Phebe were freed—frail, sick, and dazed– but still not broken.

Levy Phillips and her husband left New Orleans quickly and spent the remainder of the Civil War in Georgia. When the War ended, they returned to Washington DC where he practiced law until he died in 1884. Levy Phillips died in 1902, still high spirited and unbroken at age 82. A woman little known in history, but a woman to make Scarlett O’Hara green with envy and a woman who is now a part of all our Southern Memories.

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