25 March 2008 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 14 comments

I’m pleased to introduce a guest blogger for a forgotten cavalrymen profile. My friend Tonia J. “Teej” Smith has spent years researching the saga of the hanging of Col. Orton Williams and his cousin, Walter “Gip” Peter as spies at Fort Granger, near Franklin, Tennessee. Williams was a cousin of Mrs. Robert E. Lee, and the hanging hit the Lee family hard. Here’s Teej’s profile of forgotten cavalryman Orton Williams.

Col. William Orton Williams, P.A.C.S.

Orton Williams was born in Buffalo, New York on July 7, 1839, the son of Captain George W. Williams of the Topographical Engineers and America Peter Williams, a Georgetown socialite. Through his mother, he was a direct descendant of Martha Washington and a cousin of Mary (Mrs. Robert E.) Lee.

By the age of seven, Orton had lost both of his parents. His father was killed at the battle of Monterey in Mexico and his mother died April 25, 1842.* Mary Lee’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, became the boy’s guardian so he grew up both at Arlington and at Tudor Place, his family home in Georgetown.

Like his boyhood idol, Robert E. Lee, Orton attended the prestigious Episcopal High School in Alexandria Virginia. He hoped then to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend West Point but was prevented from doing so by a rule which prohibited brothers from attending the Academy. His brother Laurence had graduated from there in 1852. His sister Markie, however, mounted a campaign on his behalf which included shamelessly reminding everyone involved that their father had died a hero’s death. With this, she managed to secure him the coveted appointment, though curiously, he never accepted it, instead taking a job, with the Coast Survey Service in 1858.

In 1860, R.E. Lee sought a direct commission for his young protégé. On March 23, 1861, Williams was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in Lee’s own regiment, the Second Cavalry, and was assigned to Gen. Winfield Scott’s staff. Scott took an immediate liking to the young man. Within a month Orton was promoted to 1st lieutenant and became Scott’s private secretary.

His duties allowed him to spend considerable time at Arlington, much of which may be explained by his romance with Agnes Lee. Indeed, most people expected the two to marry. When Colonel Lee resigned from the army and “went South,” however, General Scott insisted that Williams cease his visits to the Lee home. Despite Scott’s order, Orton went to Arlington on May 4 to warn Mary of the impending seizure of the heights around Arlington. Upon his return to Washington, he made known his intent to resign and offer his sword to the Confederacy. Scott immediately had him arrested and incarcerated at Governor’s Island, New York. He was released several weeks later when it was deemed that any information he might have was no longer of value to the Confederates.

On June 10, 1861, Lieutenant Williams again tendered his resignation. This time it was accepted. He served briefly on Lee’s staff but when rumors began to circulate that Lee had placed him in Scott’s office to spy, Orton transferred to the staff of Gen. Leonidas Polk at Columbus, Kentucky. It would not be the last time that the word “spy” was coupled with his name.

Shortly after his arrival, he wrote to his cousin Walter “Gip” Peter and asked him to seek a transfer west. Gip was serving as one of Lige White’s scouts in the Leesburg, Virginia area. Ignoring his sister’s warning that Orton was dangerous, Gip asked for and got the transfer. It is possible that Williams wanted his cousin and friend with him because he was not well liked by his fellow officers, most of whom saw him as arrogant and condescending. Williams added to his poor reputation when he killed an enlisted man for refusing an order. His defense for what can only be called murder was “For his ignorance, I pitied him; for his insolence, I forgave him; for his insubordination, I slew him.” There is no evidence that any formal charges were ever brought against him. Nevertheless, Orton Williams became a pariah among officers and men alike. Shortly after the incident, he legally changed his name to Lawrence Williams Orton and was transferred to Gen. Braxton Bragg’s staff.

Following the battle of Shiloh in which Williams received written praise from Bragg and an engraved sabre from P.G.T. Beauregard, he was promoted to colonel and given command of Second Brigade of Maj. Gen. W.T. Martin’s Division of Cavalry. Gip became his adjutant. His cousin’s letters home that final spring indicated that Orton was doing well and anticipating a promotion to brigadier general. Two letters, one written by Robert E. Lee to Orton on April 7, and the other a few days later by JEB Stuart to an unnamed colonel who clearly was Orton, seem to verify that Williams was not only going to be promoted but was coming back to Virginia to serve under Stuart.

Orton’s change of fortune makes what happened next very puzzling. Shortly before sundown on June 8, 1863, Orton and Gip, dressed as Union officers, rode into Fort Granger, near Franklin, Tennessee and presented papers to the fort’s commander, Col. J.P Baird, which introduced them as Col. Lawrence W. Auton and his aide, Maj. Walter Dunlop, sent from Washington to inspect all the forts in the area. Baird’s subordinates were suspicious of the strangers but he accepted their story at face value, giving them the password that would insure their safe passage to Nashville and even loaning them $50.

Eventually, Baird contacted Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans at his headquarters in Murfreesboro about the pair. By the time he received word that they were imposters, they had already left the fort. He quickly dispatched Col. Louis B. Watkins, 6th Kentucky Cavalry, to bring them back. Under intense questioning, they admitted they were Confederate officers but denied that they were spies.

Upon instructions from Rosecrans’ chief of staff, Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield, Baird called a drumhead court martial. Within thirty minutes the men were found guilty and sentenced to hang the following morning. To the end, they continued to deny they were spies. In a cryptic letter to Agnes Lee, Williams spoke of marrying her in Europe within a month had not “the fate of war decided against us. I have been condemned as a spy—you know that I am not.”

Both men met death with such bravery that the entire garrison was impressed with their courage. Baird publicly expressed the view that whatever mission the men were on, it did not involve Fort Granger. All else remained a mystery to him as it does to historians to this day. A year later their families were allowed to bring their bodies back to Georgetown for burial in the family plot in Oak Hill Cemetery.

* Author has been unable to discover the cause of Orton’s mother’s death but I strongly suspect it was due to complications following childbirth.

Thanks, Teej. There’s much more to the saga, of course, and much more to the Williams family story, but I will leave it to Teej to tell that story.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Dan
    Tue 25th Mar 2008 at 10:44 am

    An excellent post! Thank you. Having stomped around Fort Granger several times and read of these two fellows this adds to my understanding of the Colonel and for that I am grateful. I was unaware that Williams had murdered an enlisted man! Clearly, the ruse the two Confederates were up to was so brazen it was doomed to be overturned and the two captured. It’s a strange case and a very good post.
    Regards,
    Dan

  2. Tue 25th Mar 2008 at 10:52 am

    Dan,

    Glad you enjoyed it, and I figured you would.

    Teej is working on a book on the Williams family. It’s a fascinating tale.

    Eric

  3. Jim Morgan
    Tue 25th Mar 2008 at 11:38 am

    Teej is definitely the person to tell this story.

    I disagree with Dan, however, that the ruse was “doomed to be overturned.” Williams and Peter came very close to getting away with it (whatever “it” actually was).

    Jim Morgan

  4. Teej Smith
    Tue 25th Mar 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Thanks, Jim and Dan. Jim is correct in that it was a near thing. In fact, had it not been for Louis Watkins they might have gotten away with “it.” I am of the opinion that the cousins got what they came for at Fort Granger, a pass that would get them into Nashville and from there on a train that would have carried them to who knows where. A journal containing the names of Union commanders and their adjutants at outposts from Franklin to the Canadian border found among Orton’s possessions after his execution would suggest that the boys had help in planning this “mission.” Of course they could have gleaned that information from newspapers but time was of the essence for Bragg at that moment. It’s even been suggested that Orton’s brother Laurence who had been cashiered on March 11, 1863 by Stanton supplied those names. I’ve also found it very curious that their execution didn’t cause more of an uproar in Richmond than it did. It was almost “the less said about the incident, the better.” E.A. Pollard, who never missed a chance to criticize Davis, was seemingly the only one to raise a public outcry.

    Many thanks, Eric, for giving me the opportunity to talk about my favorite subject, William Orton Williams.

    Regards,
    Teej

  5. Butch Barringer
    Tue 25th Mar 2008 at 1:25 pm

    What a great post and interesting story. I’m not too familiar with the western theater of the war, but this story easily held my interest. I enjoyed reading it. She certainly is the one to tell a story like this, and I look forward to seein her book in print.
    Butch Barringer

  6. Tue 25th Mar 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Teej,

    It’s my pleasure. Thanks for writing it.

    Perhaps you can persuade Mr. Barringer to write a profile of his ancestor to be included here…..

    Eric

  7. Rebecca
    Wed 26th Mar 2008 at 8:50 am

    Well done, Teej. Always enjoy hearing you talk about Orton Williams. Now get on with that book!

  8. Frances Scott
    Thu 16th Jul 2009 at 2:42 pm

    You have a number of errors in your article. Please read “Who Is Markie?” – The Life of Martha Custis Williams Carter – Cousin and Confidante of Robert E. Lee.” She was Orton’s sister. Anne Cipriani Webb and I are the authors; and it is published by Heritage Books.

  9. Teej Smith
    Thu 16th Jul 2009 at 5:18 pm

    You have a number of errors in your article. Please read “Who Is Markie?” – The Life of Martha Custis Williams Carter – Cousin and Confidante of Robert E. Lee.” She was Orton’s sister. Anne Cipriani Webb and I are the authors; and it is published by Heritage Books.

    WOW…it is so cool to meet someone who apparently has as much interest in the Orton Williams story as I do. I have read your book and look forward to finding out what my errors appear to be. Rather than tie up Eric’s blog perhaps you could contact me privately at teej@nc.rr.com?

    Regards,
    Teej Smith

  10. Debbie
    Mon 19th Oct 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Regarding: “”Author has been unable to discover the cause of Orton’s mother’s death but I strongly suspect it was due to complications following childbirth.”

    I am curious as to why Orton’s mother’s death is suspected to be to due to complications following childbirth? I recently visited Tudor Place in Georgetown where a portaint of America hangs, painted by her husband and depicts America breastfeeding her youngest son Laurence Abert Williams (born in 1833) the baby was at least several months old in the painting, …the education director at Tudor Place said the baby was “probably about 12 mo. in age in the painting”

    Regards, Debbie
    Northern Virginia

  11. Debbie
    Mon 19th Oct 2009 at 2:59 pm

    still trying to get the time-line straight: per the education director at Tudor Place: William Orton Williams was born in 1839 in Buffalo, NY, his mother America died and was buried in 1842* in Buffalo, NY, his father William G. Williams died in 1846* at the Battle of Monterey in the War with Mexico where he served under General Zachary Taylor; …he sent a message to tell his children he “had died at the head of my column.”

    so still no connection to America dying from a postpartum complication unless she had another undocumented baby after William Orton in 1839, ….right?

    Debbie
    Northern Virginia

  12. Teej Smith
    Mon 19th Oct 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Debbie wrote:

    <>

    In her 16 years of marriage, America Peter was pregnant 15 times. Only five of those children, three girls and two boys made it to adulthood. Her last child, a boy named Toby, only lived a few months before dying at Mackinac Island, Mich. in 1841. America died only a few months after that. A family friend wrote, ” Mrs. Williams is again, for the fifteenth time, as they say ‘women wish to be.’ She is said to have been very beautiful and fascinating and figured conspicuously in gay life at Washington, but her beauty is near wreck and she looks prematurely old. She is not more than thirty-five.” Actually America was 37 at the time. From what I’ve read, America Peter Williams was never a very strong person health-wise so certainly 15 pregnancies in so short a time would have taken its toll, no? Perhaps I would have been more correct to say she likely died of exhaustion?

    Regards,

    Teej Smith

  13. Herb Swingle
    Tue 31st Aug 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Would you please put me in touch with Tonia J Smith.I am a Civil War Researcher and interested in her article on Sarah Slater.Thanks–Herb Swingle

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