Confederate general William Henry Chase Whiting was born on 22 March 1824 in Biloxi, Mississippi, the son of army officer Levi Whiting and Mary A. Whiting of Massachusetts. Educated in the North, he graduated first in the Class of 1845 at West Point, with the highest grades yet attained by a cadet. This achievement earned him assignment to the prestigious Corps of Engineers. In addition to a frontier assignment in Texas, he worked on river and harbor improvements, coastal fortifications, and lighthouses along the California, Gulf, and southeastern coasts. During a two-year posting on the Lower Cape Fear River in North Carolina, he married Katherine Davis Walker of Wilmington on 22 April 1857.
He resigned his commission as a US Army captain on 20 February 1861 to cast his lot with the Confederacy. After serving as Maj. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s chief of staff during the First Manassas on 21 July 1861 and commanding a division during the Seven Days’ Campaign of 1862 in Virginia, he was transferred to command the District of the Cape Fear in November 1862.
Whiting’s district included Wilmington, North Carolina, which became the South’s most important blockade-running port. To defend the approaches to the port he expanded the existing earthworks of Fort Fisher, which stood at the end of a long sandy peninsula between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic. Fort Fisher grew into the strongest fort in the Confederacy. Its long-range guns kept Union blockaders well out to sea, enabling blockade-runners to bring vital supplies to the Confederacy nearly until the end of the war.
Whiting’s men liked him and good-naturedly nicknamed him Little Billy. Early in the war, he won glowing praise from his superiors, but the praise faded as his increasingly strident criticism of the military and the government was seen as arrogance. He irritated members of Jefferson Davis’s administration with constant appeals for more troops and heavy guns to defend Fort Fisher, which he (and many future historians) regarded as one of the most important points in the Confederacy. After requesting a transfer to more active operations, he spent a few disappointing months commanding a division near Petersburg, Virginia, in mid-1864 before returning to Wilmington.
In December 1864 Fort Fisher repelled a massive Union Army and Navy attack. As a stronger assault loomed in January 1865, Lt. Gen. Braxton Bragg, who took over command of the district from Whiting, decided to abandon Wilmington. Fort Fisher was attacked with the largest amphibious operation conducted by the United States until World War II. During the heavy bombardment, Whiting returned to Fort Fisher, telling its commander, “I have come to share your fate. You and your garrison are to be sacrificed.” Whiting was wounded while leading a countercharge on 15 January 1865. Taken prisoner after the fort fell, he was held at Fort Columbus in New York Harbor, where he died of dysentery on 10 March.
- C. B. Denson, An Address Delivered in Raleigh, N.C., on Memorial Day (May 10), 1895, Containing a Memoir of the Late Major-General William Henry Chase Whiting of the Confederate Army (1895)
- Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope (1997)
- William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 vols. (1979–96)
- Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray: The Lives of the Confederate Commanders (1959)