William Dennison Whipple - The 3rd US Infantry Officer Who Saved the Army’s Gold While Traveling on a Confederate Troop Train

By Jim Tate


William Whipple was described by a Civil War contemporary as a “reserved, serious and formal career officer”. Born on August 2, 1826 in the hamlet of Nelson in Madison County, New York, Whipple was appointed to West Point in 1847.  He graduated in 1851 ranked 31st, near the bottom of his class.  This low class standing resulted in a commission in the infantry. (4) For future reference, one of the instructors at West Point while Whipple was a cadet was Captain George H. Thomas.  We will hear more of the relationship of these two men later.


In September 1851 Whipple was appointed as 2nd lieutenant.  His first assignment was with 3rd US Infantry. (4). In the spring of 1852 2nd Lt. Whipple marched a detachment of recruits from Ft. Levenworth to New Mexico to join the Regiment.  Whipple served as a line officer with the 3rd Infantry for the next nine years in New Mexico Territory.  During that time he participated in various expeditions against the Indians. During one of these expeditions in November 1859, Lt. Whipple commanded a detachment from Company B sent in pursuit of Navajo Indians who had been stealing livestock from the civilian ranches in the area of Ft. Defiance, New Mexico Territory.  Lt. Whipple’s detachment captured 62 horses, 130 sheep and 120 goats.  The entire expedition covered 80 miles.   This was considered a highly successful expedition and earns the approbation of Captain Oliver Shepherd.


William Whipple married Caroline Mary Cooke of Philadelphia on December 16, 1854. (1, p.140)


Lt. Whipple was in the garrison of Ft. Defiance in the early morning hours of April 30, 1860 when the fort was attacked by a large party of Navajos.  The Indians attacked in the early morning hours by creeping up to the sentry posts in the dark.  The ensuing battle pitted 120 soldiers in Companies B, C, and E against an estimated band of 1000 Indians and lasted for two hours.  The result of the battle was the defeat and withdrawal of the Indians with significant casualties.  Three soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle.  Lt. Whipple led Company E in a strong defense of the eastern side of the post. It should be noted that Lt. Whipple was the Officer of the Day at the time of the attack.  He had observed suspicious Indian activity around the fort in the days prior to the attack.  As OD he ordered the sentinels to be doubled on the sentry posts and to be extra alert.  He had just finished an inspection of the guard and a tour of the sentry posts when the Indians made their attack at approximately 4 AM.  The quick response of the three sentinels at the corral delayed the Indian attack until the garrison could be assembled for defense. (6, p. 10-11)  The quick response of the guard detail under Lt. Whipple’s supervision were in large measure responsible for the successful defense of the fort.


Whipple’s alert observations and his pro-active defensive measures would be repeated many times in the future during his Civil War career.


Lt. Whipple was appointed regimental quartermaster in early 1861 as the Regiment was being withdrawn from Texas.  The role of quartermaster in a regiment was critical to the obtaining and accounting for supplies, equipment and uniforms.  The quartermaster was also tasked with finding camp grounds or billets for the troops on the march.  The quartermaster was also responsible for securing shipping transportation for the regiment as the companies made their way east from their frontier forts to the port of Indianola on the Gulf coast.  To accomplish these tasks Whipple had a chest of gold with which to make payments.


As the session crisis became more intense, the regular army units in Texas were ordered to leave the state for transportation to posts in the Northeast United States.  In March, 1861 Companies C and E were embarked from Indianola for Ft. Hamilton in New York harbor.  Upon arriving at Ft. Hamilton, these two companies were immediately sent to Ft. Pickens at Pensacola, Florida. (7. p. 443)   In April 1861, the remaining 8 companies of the 3rd Infantry were assembled in Indianola, Texas in preparation for departure to New York.   The first steamship was loaded with six companies of the 3rd Infantry and several companies of the 2nd Cavalry as well as the wives and children of the soldiers.  Two companies of the battalion had to be left behind to await additional transportation.  These companies along with QM Lt. Whipple were captured by Texas state forces under Major Earl Van Dorn, (late of the 2nd US Cavalry).  Lt. Whipple refused to take the parole from Major Van Dorn.  Three days later Whipple disappeared from the rolls of captive soldiers and escaped from Texas. (5)


Whipple traveled in disguise from Texas to New Orleans.  From New Orleans he traveled by train to Grand Junction, Tennessee.  This portion of the journey was made on a troop train with a Confederate regiment.  Whipple sat behind the regimental Colonel and gained valuable information on Confederate troop movements as they traveled together.  Arriving in Washington DC in May, Whipple turned over the balance of his funds which he had spirited from Texas to the Quartermaster General.  He then rejoined his company in the Washington defenses. (1, p.138)


Whipple was assigned to the staff of David Hunter as Assistant Adjutant General at the First Battle of Bull Run.  His participation in the battle resulted in a commendation and in having a horse shot from under him.  Whipple’s next assignments were on the staffs of General John A. Dix at Baltimore and General John Wool at Fort Monroe.  While on General Wool’s staff Whipple was involved in a confused prisoner exchange at City Point.  The exchange was to exchange Federal officers for Confederate prisoners.  At the last minute General Wool and Lt. Col. Whipple learned that the Confederates were asking for the return of privateer seamen.  The Lincoln administration regarded these seamen as pirates.  Negotiations at City Point broke down, but Whipple held firm to his orders and refused the exchange.  He was commended for his actions.


Whipple was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers and selected by President Lincoln to command the post at Philadelphia.  He took charge of the city as the new conscription law was being enforced in 1863. It is noteworthy that Philadelphia did not have the riots that occurred in the other major Northern cities.   Through his foresight and vigilance, Whipple prevented a draft riot in the city.  He was next appointed to command the Lehigh District of Pennsylvania where he quelled the violence of the “Molly Maguires” a secret society of rebellious coal miners. (1, p. 139) 

It was apparent that Whipple had organizational and leadership skills that were needed in the theaters of conflict.  Whipple was appointed chief of staff for George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland effective from December 1863 to June 27, 1865.  Thomas and Whipple had known each other from the time that Thomas was an instructor at West Point during Whipple’s cadetship.   Thomas’ staff was noteworthy as being larger and better organized that most Civil War staffs.  In fact, Thomas’ staff was functioned in much the same manner as a modern army staff.  As chief of staff, Whipple set and maintained high standards for officers of the Army of the Cumberland, expecting them to be “punctual, organized, business-like and efficient”.    

Whipple’s first appointment as brigadier general was never confirmed by Congress, and he was re-appointed brigadier general of volunteers in September 1864.  The second time his appointment was confirmed by Congress.  He was brevetted as lieutenant colonel, colonel and brigadier general (regulars) for the actions at Atlanta and Nashville.  He was brevetted as major general on March 13, 1865 “for meritorious service”.


During the Federal occupation of the city of Nashville by General Thomas and his army in the autumn of 1864, Whipple endeavored to find suitable housing for his wife and family.  His contemporaries remarked that all the houses he could find were occupied by their residents.  As a senior officer with high authority in the city William Whipple could have commandeered housing and forced the occupants to move out.  However, Whipple was too gentlemanly to commandeer housing and his kindness and consideration for others were traits that held him in high esteem with his colleagues. (1, p. 141)


After the Civil War, Whipple held staff positions, including aide-de-camp for General W.T. Sherman.  He retired as a colonel from the Adjutant General’s Department in 1890.  Whipple died of pneumonia on April 1, 1902 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.



1. Annual Reunion, Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY; Annual Reunion, June 8, 1902; Saginaw, Mich; Seemann & Peters, Printers and Binders
2. The Warrior Generals Combat Leadership in the Civil War; Thomas B. Buell; Three Rivers Press, NY, New York, 1997
George Thomas, Virginian for the Union; Christopher J. Einoff; University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK; 2007
Arlington National Cemetery Website.
3. William D. Whipple Microfiche M1395 (Material in 4566 ACP 1890)
4. The Third US Infantry Regiment: An Introduction to the Officers, Enlisted men, and Service of the Regiment as 1861 Began.  Gregory M. Kostka, Unpublished manuscript, 1994.
5. The Third Regiment of Infantry (an abridgement of Lieut. J. H. McRae’s “History of the 3d Infantry”)


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