Amiel Whipple’s Armor of Dirt

Brig. Gen. Amiel Whipple

We have written about the death of Brig. Gen. Amiel Whipple exactly once on this blog in ten and a half years, and that wasn’t until August of 2021 in a guest post by T. J. Bradley, writing about sharpshooters. Whipple was mortally wounded by a sharpshooter on May 4, 1863, at the battle of Chancellorsville. (Read T. J.’s post here.)

Why does this oversight matter?

Well, for instance, we’ve written about Whipple’s fellow III Corps division commander Hiram Berry, killed on May 3 at the same battle, on several occasions. We’ve even reprinted some Hiram Berry memorial death poetry! Berry has a road co-named after him on the Chancellorsville battlefield, Berry-Paxton Drive; the other half of that duo, Confederate general Elisha Frank “Bull” Paxton, also killed on May 3, has appeared in several blog posts, too. And, of course, we have written about the accidental May 2 wounding and subsequent death of Stonewall Jackson roughly one billion times.

We tend to like writing about fallen leaders here at ECW—so much so that we even built our annual symposium around the theme in 2021. We have a book, Fallen Leaders, coming out as part of our Emerging Civil War 10th Anniversary Series. Fallen Leaders fascinate us.

Whipple was a Massachusetts native who was initially rejected by West Point. He went to Amherst College instead, but then West Point relented. Whipple ended up graduating fifth in the Class of 1841. In the army, he went on a number of survey missions, including the new U.S.-Mexican border. He also surveyed a potential route for a trans-continental railroad. Along the Great Lakes, he oversaw the dredging of deeper channels for larger boats and he supervised lighthouses.

During the Civil War, he was involved with balloon recon under Irvin McDowell before becoming George McClellan’s chief topographical engineer. Prior to the battle of Fredericksburg, he was assigned to the III Corps and rose to division command. A sharpshooter got him on May 4 after the Army of the Potomac had settled into its contracted position north of the Chancellorsville intersection. Transferred to Washington, he lived until May 7. President Lincoln promoted him on his deathbed to major general.

On quick examination, Whipple seems like a good candidate for a blog post, if not on his own then at least in the context of the rest of the III Corps at Chancellorsville. The corps’s only division commander to survive Chancellorsville was David Bell Birney (who would come down with a terminal case of dysentery 17 months later). That interesting tidbit alone would seem worthy of a post.

But Amiel Whipple has escaped our pens and our keyboards.

However, he did not escape the pen of Pvt. John Haley of the 17th Maine. I’ve written before about Haley’s engaging memoir, full of great writing and keen observations, all of which are subject to his biting humor. You can read about some of Haley’s journal entries here, here, and here.

While combing through Haley’s journal for some other nugget, Kris White recently came across a passage I had been looking for for years, but I couldn’t remember who’d written it. He sent me a quick text: “Found the dirt quote.”

As Kris is fond of saying, quoting an old Seinfeld episode, “Gold, Jerry. Gold.”

And so now I have a quick opportunity to write about Amiel Whipple, although it is up to you decide whether that turns out to be a good thing for Whipple or not. Here’s what Haley had to say about him:

General A. W. Whipple of our 2nd Division was the next to fall after Berry. He was also shot in the heart and carried from the field mortally wounded. How any bullet ever pierced General Whipple’s armor of dirt is a mystery. I considered him perfectly safe from any missile weighing less than a ton, having a casing of dirt of unknown thickness supposed to be invulnerable.[1]

Amiel Whipple was buried in Proprietors’ Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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[1] John Haley, The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: A Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer, Ruth L. Silliker, editor (Down East Books, 1985), 83.

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