The WLI was chartered in 1849 and many founding members were veterans of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Before North Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861, the WLI, along with other military units, seized control of Forts Johnston and Caswell, which were located near the mouth of Cape Fear. It became part of the 18th North Carolina Infantry during the war. During WWI, the WLI manned Fort Caswell's artillery and also served in France as part of the U.S. Expeditionary Force. In WWII, it was sent to Aruba as an anti-aircraft unit.
In the mid-1950s, the WLI deeded the building to the city for use as a public library but retained the right to use the basement as a meeting hall. The library operated here until it moved to another building in 1981. The city next used it for its planning offices. Then in 1996, the city deeded the building to First Baptist Church (located next door). The WLI retained the right to use the basement (it is not clear if the WLI is active today).