This Day in Jewish History: Union General Exiles Charleston Wit to Swampy Island

Union general 'Beast' Butler didn't have proof Eugenia Phillips had spied for the Confederates, but she really annoyed him.

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On June 30, 1862, the fiercely pro-Confederate society woman Eugenia Levy Phillips was banished from New Orleans by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who dispatched her to the mosquito-infested Ship Island, in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although Phillips was suspected at various times of acting as a spy for Southern forces, in this case, Butler, the commander of Union forces in New Orleans, exiled her because he didn’t like her attitude. 

Eugenia Levy, who is one of the most well-known female figures of the Confederacy, certainly in part due to the witty and extensive diary she kept, was born into one of the leading Jewish families of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1819. Her father was Jacob Clavius Levy, a prominent businessman. Her mother, the former Fannie Yates, was a Liverpool, England-born actress, who, after joining her husband in the United States, became one of the leading hostesses of Jewish Charleston society. 

In 1836, Eugenia married Philip Phillips, a lawyer and politician, who served in both the South Carolina legislature and later in the Alabama legislature too, after he and Eugenia moved to Mobile. In 1853, after Philip’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives, the family moved to Washington, D.C. Eugenia and Philip had nine children.

The fire-breather and the Beast

After a single term in Congress, Philip decided to open a law office in Washington.

Although he opposed secession in 1861, Eugenia became nationally known for her strong loyalty to the South and her loathing for the Union, earning a description as a “fire-breathing secessionist in skirts.”

That August, several months after the outbreak of the Civil War, the family home was occupied by Union troops, who apparently suspected Eugenia of engaging in espionage. She and several other women similarly suspected were then imprisoned in the attic of Rose Greenhow, and held for three weeks. But Eugenia had been quick enough to order her maid to destroy her personal papers before her arrest, and no charges were brought against her.

Through his personal connections, Philip was able to obtain Eugenia’s release, in return for his promise to leave Washington. He sold all his property and headed south with his family for New Orleans.

The following April, however, Union forces arrived in the Louisiana city, commanded by Maj. Gen. Butler. Butler, widely known as “the Beast,” for his brutality, and also known to be contemptuous of Jews, seemed to have it in for the proud and sharp-tongued Eugenia Phillips.

Maj. Gen. Butler (Brady-Handy studio, 1870s, Wikimedia Commons)

Laughing at death?

The day after the June 29 funeral of one Lt. DeKay passed by the Phillips’ house, troops showed up with orders for Eugenia’s arrest. The charge, she was told, was that she had been witnessed laughing while the funeral procession passed under her balcony.

In her diary, Eugenia acknowledged that she may not have helped her case when she told Butler, whom she thought “styles himself Christ’s viceregent,” that she had merely been  “in good spirits the day of the funeral.” She also refused to apologize or ask for mercy.

When Butler sentenced Eugenia to incarceration on Ship Island, a yellow fever quarantine station off the Mississippi coast, she reportedly told him, “It has one advantage over the city, sir; you will not be there.” 

Conditions were difficult on Ship Island, and though her family could send her supplies, she was allowed no visitors. She kept herself in high spirits, however, so that, on September 11, seeing that, far from having been broken, Phillips had become a Confederate cause célèbre, Butler allowed her to return home.

Only on her return to New Orleans did Eugenia break down temporarily. As she wrote, “I fell fainting and paralyzed on the floor.”

The next month, the family left New Orleans for LaGrange, Georgia, where they remained until the war’s end, in 1865. Two years later, the family moved back to Washington, where Philip resumed his lucrative law practice. He died in 1884. Eugenia passed away on April 1, 1902.