W.H.C. Whiting was born into a military family on March 22, 1824 at Biloxi, Mississippi. His grandfather fought in the American Revolution and his father served the army from the War of 1812 until his death in 1853, at which time he was a lieutenant colonel in the 1st US Artillery. Whiting was an extremely intelligent young man who graduated from the Public School of Boston and entered Georgetown College (now Georgetown University) at age fourteen. He graduated second in his class at Georgetown in only two years time, and secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated first in his class in 1845.
His outstanding academic record landed Whiting a commission as 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army Engineer Corps. He was posted to the southwest, where he helped lay out a road from San Antonio to El Paso, Texas all the while fighting Comanche warriors. He was later put in charge of river and harbor improvements in various locales. But Whiting made his mark inspecting a number of forts including Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida; Fort Carroll near Baltimore, Maryland; Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia; and Fort Caswell near Wilmington, North Carolina. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on March 16, 1853 and to captain on December 13, 1858. He married Katherine Davis Walker of Wilmington, and he was accepted into the higher levels of Wilmington society. While on duty in Savannah, Whiting resigned his commission on February 20, 1861.
Whiting was appointed major of engineers in the Provisional Confederate Army three days after his resignation from the U.S. Army. He helped Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard develop the harbor defenses at Charleston, South Carolina, and, on April 21, 1861, he was appointed inspector general of coastal defenses in North Carolina. In May 1861, Whiting was transferred to a field command under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in Virginia. After performing well in the First Battle of Manassas, he was promoted to brigadier general and commanded a division during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring and summer of 1862. He again performed admirably at the Battle of Gaines' Mill and earned high praise from Johnston, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Pres. Jefferson Davis. However, Whiting's personality was abrasive, and, although high ranking Confederate officers all agreed that he was extremely able and capable, he became a political outcast due to his criticism of the government in Richmond.
On November 8, 1862, Whiting was assigned to command the District of the Cape Fear and returned to Wilmington. He commanded Col. William Lamb and oversaw the construction of Fort Fisher. He was promoted to major general in February 1863, in part to soothe his damaged ego and appease his supporters. Briefly recalled to Virginia by General Beauregard in May 1864, Whiting's performance was poor, and old rumors of his alleged drinking problems resurfaced. Though Whiting and his supporters denied these allegations, the specter of his supposed alcoholism continued to dog his career, and he was sent back to Wilmington again. As a Union attack on Fort Fisher seemed more imminent, Confederate officials, including Davis, Lee, and North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance, showed their lack of confidence in Whiting by replacing him as commander of the District of the Cape Fear. On October 22, 1864, Gen. Braxton Bragg was sent to take over the command. Three days later, Bragg was placed in charge of the newly created Department of North Carolina, and Whiting became his second in command.
Whiting spent the remainder of his career working to defend Fort Fisher. He assisted Colonel Lamb in preparation for the attacks of December 1864 and January 1865. He constantly begged and pleaded with all who would listen for reinforcements and more seasoned troops. His requests to Vance, Davis, Lee, and even Bragg fell mostly on deaf ears. Whiting offered his support during the battles and, though Lamb deferred command of the fort to him, Whiting refused to supersede Lamb. On January 15, 1865, Whiting, like Lamb, was wounded defending Fort Fisher. He was captured, taken prisoner, and sent to Fort Columbus, Governor's Island, New York. While imprisoned there, he contracted dysentery and died.