The 14th New York claims to have been the first troops to enter the crater. Such is not the case, for the Provisional Second Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery was not only the first Union troops to do so, but was also the last of such men to leave it, that , too, as prisoners of war, having valiantly defended their position till over powered and unable to escape. That the Provisional Regiment stood the brunt of the battle is without a doubt, and General Burnside, in his “Conduct of the War” says: “One regiment, the Second Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, advanced some one hundred yards beyond the crater, but, not supported, fell back.
Such is the description of the role of the 2d Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, used as ground infantry, in the early morning attack of the Confederate earthworks immediately following the explosion that launched the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. Reports vary, but after action reports clearly indicate this unit suffered significant casualties and many of the men were forced to surrender when they were cut off from the remainder of the assault force by confederates who rallied to the breach. Six officers in the vanguard — Adjutant Phillips among them — were captured and marched away as prisoners of war.
Thus ended the light, but periodic stream of correspondence William B. Phillips sent home to Hyde Park, Pennsylvania, leaving us to conjecture as to his whereabouts during the eight months of captivity that would follow. Though captured officers were typically taken to Libby Prison in Richmond where they awaited exchange for Confederate officers of equal or lesser rank, new war measures implemented by General Grant prevented this. To bring the war to a swifter conclusion, it was reasoned, there should be no more prisoner exchanges. The North had more men and resources; victory was certain if they could only keep Confederate officers from being returned to the battlefield. Unfortunately, Union officers and soldiers captured by the Confederates during the overland campaign in the summer and winter of 1864-65 would have to pay a price far higher than those who had experienced capture during the first two years of the war.
The condition of the Confederate prisons that awaited those Union officers and soldiers who were captured at the Battle of the Crater were deplorable. They were overcrowded, filthy, disease-ridden, and infested with vermin. For those who survived, it must have seemed a fate worse than death. The horrid scenes they witnessed surely haunted them the remainder of their lives — far beyond the end of hostilities.
From William’s Pension File (Memorandum From Prisoner of War Records), we know that following his capture in front of Petersburg on July 30, 1864, he was transported with other prisoners south to Camp Asylum in Columbia, S.C. We also know that he was paroled at N.E. Ferry, N.C. on March 1, 1865.
During imprisonment, William became good friends with fellow prisoner Capt. John Norris and it’s likely they journeyed through the Confederate prison system together. According to a Norris letter, the prisoners were held for 2 days while in transit to Columbia at a cotton warehouse in Danville, Virginia before arriving at Richland Jail in Columbia on August 6. Norris remained at the Jail until paroled on Dec. 8, 1864 via Charleston. We don’t know if William spent time at the Richland Jail with Norris or not but they obviously became friends somewhere along the way. All we know for sure is that William was at Camp Asylum officially until his parole date as per his war record.