Goodspeed's 1889 History of Laclede County, Missouri, declared that Rufus Phillips was one of the leading citizens of Union Township of Laclede County. To support the assertion, the author went on to chronicle Phillips's biography. Born in New Hampshire in 1822, Rufus Phillips became a school teacher after graduating from Hancock Academy in that state before migrating to Missouri, where he again took up school teaching. At the time of the 1850 census, he was living in Dallas County, and his occupation was listed in the census as school teacher. Shortly after this census, he moved to Laclede County, got married, and resumed teaching school. Some time in the 1850s, he turned to farming and stock raising and was appointed commissioner to locate swamp lands in Laclede, Wright, Barton, Webster, and other counties. He helped lay out the town of Lamar in Barton County. He built the first steam mill in Laclede County (at Phillipsburg, which was named after him), was appointed the county's first surveyor, and later became the county's second representative in the state legislature. Despite Phillips's impressive resume, many Union citizens during the Civil War would have no doubt disagreed with the idea that he was a leading citizen.
At the outset of the war, Phillips raised a company for the Missouri State Guard and was commissioned captain of the company. He participated in the skirmish at Springfield in which Major Charles Zagonyi drove the state forces out of town in late October 1861. After the Southern defeat, Phillips hightailed it back to Laclede County, where he was immediately captured by some Union home guards and delivered on October 30 to Colonel Joseph W. McClurg, in command of the Osage Regiment of Missouri Volunteers at Linn Creek. McClurg forwarded Phillips, along with a few other prisoners, to the St. Louis arsenal on November 12. In the transmittal papers, McClurg called Phillips a "notorious robber and plunderer" who had robbed the McClurg, Murphy and Company Store at Linn Creek. He had also taken two Union men, James and William Karr, prisoner in Miller County in September and robbed James Karr's store of over $200 in goods, all while acting as a "rebel captain." McClurg emphasized that Phillips was "the most impudent, most ungentlemanly, most unfeeling" among the rebel leaders and "even now is brazen in his appearance."
Not long after his commitment to prison in St. Louis, influential friends on the outside began petitioning to have Phillips released, and on December 17 McClurg once again took up his pen to oppose leniency. Writing to James O. Broadhead, a prominent St. Louis lawyer and politician and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, McClurg declared that Phillips was "one of the basest among the unprincipled secessionists of S.W. Missouri" and was "notorious as captain of a plundering band." McClurg said he had several witnesses who would testify that even the clothes Phillips had on at the time he was arrested had been stolen. McClurg added that, while Phillips was confined at Linn Creek, he had been brazen in his conduct and impudent in expressing secessionist sentiments. McClurg said he had been informed that Phillips now professed to be penitent, claiming that he was misled and only acting under orders. McClurg, however, concluded that the prisoner was only "attempting to work upon the sympathies of those who have not known the man. He has ever since I have known him been reckless and unprincipled. He is incapable of having any principle to be governed by, or he never would have favored this rebellion, coming as he did from New Hampshire. He is a dangerous man to be turned loose at this time. The Union men are sufficiently discouraged at this time, and the liberation of such men would only lessen their confidence in those that rule."
On the same day McClurg wrote his letter, a citizen of Jefferson City named Edward Collison also wrote to St. Louis (to attorney John J. Hoppe) opposing Phillips's release. Collison, like McClurg, had heard that there were people who called themselves Union men working to effect Phillips's release, but Collison said Phillips, being a Yankee by birth, was only "playing sharp" and affecting humbleness merely to gain the sympathy of such men. Collins claimed General Sterling Price, commanding the Missouri State Guard, could be said to have borrowed from Phillips the very idea of plundering in order to outfit his army, because while Price was still pleading for 50,000 volunteers to fill out his army, Phillips was already stealing and marauding. Collison said that the so-called Union men who were now trying to help Phillips must surely believe in the tenet of supererogation, because by their works they had declared that they had rendered to their country "as much as they are bound to do, and whatever patriotism they have left over and above that which may be sufficient for their salvation, it is their bound duty to place it upon the books of the Provost Marshal for some traitor down at the 'nigger pen.'" (This was a reference to the Myrtle Street Prison, which had been a slave pen prior to the war.) "These kindhearted souls," Collison concluded, "would be at better employment were they as much interested in relieving the wants of many Union families now in St. Louis rendered homeless and penniless by this same man Phillips and his band, as they are in the welfare of those who have brought this misery upon them."
McClurg's and Collison's strong opposition to showing leniency in Phillips's case, however, did not keep other men from acting on Phillips's behalf, nor did it keep Phillips from pleading his own case. On January 6, 1862, Phillips and several other prisoners wrote a letter to Union officials asking for mercy on the grounds that they had become ill while in prison and requesting that they, therefore, be released.
On May 20, 1862, John M. Richardson, former Missouri Secretary of State and captain of the "Mountain Rangers" (that he would go on to organize as the 14th Missouri State Militia), wrote from Springfield to Provost Marshal General A.J. Farrar at St. Louis recommending that Phillips be released to the confines of Laclede County upon giving $10,000 bond and taking an oath of allegiance. Richardson said he was not in the habit of making such requests, but he thought it was in the interest of "humanity and sound policy." The same day, Richardson also wrote to Richard Howard, a prominent citizen of St. Louis (who probably held some official Union title, too) reporting that he had written to Farrar requesting the release of Phillips. Richardson told Howard that he wanted him and Frank Dick (a close associate of the politically influential Francis Blair, Jr. and a future provost marshal general himself) to personally "attend to this and have him let out." Richardson said he thought Phillips would be an influence "for peace and quiet" if he were released.
On May 23, A.M.F. Hudson, a prominent citizen of Laclede County, also wrote to Colonel Farrar urging Phillips's release. Hudson said that although Phillips had committed a grave sin against the government, he felt Phillips's previous service to his country (during or near the time of the Mexican War) should be taken into consideration, and he felt that humanity demanded his release because he was ill. Hudson said he felt sure Phillips would keep whatever obligations were placed upon him as a condition of release. Hudson's opinion probably held little sway, because he himself was suspected of being a Southern sympathizer. In fact, he was killed later in the war east of Lebanon, supposedly by Union men because of his disloyalty.
Despite the pleas on his behalf, Phillips was apparently not released until mid-1863, when, according to the Laclede County history, he was exchanged at Vicksburg. After his release, he remained in the Confederate army, according to the county history, until the end of the war, when he came back to Laclede County and became a prominent citizen.