The actions of Confederate MG William H. C. Whiting at Fort Fisher painted this soldier as a true Southern patriot but it wasn’t always this way. He was also the author of one of the great Confederate military failures in the east. Gen. P.G.T Beauregard’s magnificent break out attack from the Drewry’s Bluff fortifications during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign set the stage for Whiting’s monumental failure. Whiting had sought a field command after laboring on the Fort Fisher defenses and was called to Virginia to serve under Beauregard. In a questionable move when Beauregard moved off to coordinate the attack on MG Butler’s Federal forces he left the relatively inexperienced Whiting in command of the Petersburg defenses.
The Confederate commander expected that Butler would give way under his attack and make for the safety of his own entrenched line. In an effort to prevent the Yankees from reaching their line Beauregard sent Colonel Thomas Logan to Whiting with an order for a secondary attack by the force from Petersburg. This force consisted of the Virginia brigade of BG Henry Wise, the North Carolina brigade of one armed BG James Martin (with one regiment from Colquitt attached), a compliment of artillery, and a portion of BG James Dearing’s cavalry brigade. The force totaled about 5700 troops, not an insignificant body of troops. It was a bold, imaginative and elaborate plan and Beauregard was supremely confident in it.
Unfortunately, Beauregard also had faith in Whiting’s ability to accomplish the necessary actions to ensure the success of the plan. Although the order simplified the instructions by ordering Whiting to march northward from the Swift Creek line at the sound of his guns. Rom the very outset the operation seemed to be beyond Whiting’s comprehension. Hearing the first guns of Beauregard’s attack Whiting ordered his men across Swift Creek and immediately began to push the small Federal skirmish line back. Shortly thereafter Whiting was forced to make his first important decision. The highway split and he divided his force between the main road, the Richmond Turnpike and the road to the northeast, the Old Stage Road. Despite the apparent lack of resistance Whiting became extraordinarily hesitant. He deployed his troops more for sluggish defensive action than a rapid advance and began to arouse the suspicion of his subordinate commanders.
Across Ashton Creek was future Wilmington adversary BG Adelbert Ames with two regiments o infantry ( 13th Indiana and the 169th New York) supported by Battery E 3rd US artillery and a small detachment of the 1st US Colored Cavalry. This small force and a report from his cavalry thoroughly convinced Whiting that he was facing the threat of a crushing blow from his left. But Ames understood the dangerous position he was in began a slow withdrawal attempting a delaying action against a numerically superior force. The Confederates started a cautious advance across the creek, but against the advice of D.H. Hill, along as an aide, Whiting called a halt to all movement while a scout was sent to examine the supposed threat to his flanks. Instead of an attack Whiting irrationally opted to wait while urging his subordinates to continue to watch to the flanks.
Then Whiting issued an irrational command decision to begin a retreat. Aghast Hill and artillery commander Colonel Hilary Jones rode forward to judge the situation for themselves. They were not impressed by Ames efforts and urged Whiting to attack at once. He would not be swayed and ordered a general retreat before a Federal attack could swamp them. The decision convinced several of those involved that Whiting was intoxicated. Hill attempted to alter the situation but could not gain the cooperation of Wise who insisted that he had to take orders from Whiting. The retreat quickly fell into complete disorder and a disgusted Hill excused himself from the scene.
These pauses, created by Whiting’s confusion and timidity allowed Butler enough time to begin his fighting withdraw. The battle lasted thirteen hours as the Rebels pursued Butler’s troops southward. Whiting’s force, that was supposed to block the retreat route, never appeared. Suffering from poor communications and the extremely timid leadership of Whiting the blocking force did not reach the expected location in time and ended up bivouacking while Butler made good his escape. Beauregard was disappointed that the complete destruction of the Federal forces had not been accomplished and placed a major portion of the blame on Whiting, who asked for and was given relief. Butler, however, was back where he started and now had very little hope of influencing the campaign. Nevertheless, Whiting’s failure stole much from the possibility of overwhelming Confederate success.Whiting’s Failure (Campaign Series)