By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2017 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
“And now you know the rest of the story.” This is the tagline that was used by news broadcaster and commentator, and dispenser of Americana, Paul Harvey to close each of the segments of a radio series that he did. In each segment of that series, which was named The Rest of the Story, Paul Harvey related a story about some person or event in which there was some kind of interesting and unexpected anecdote or connection. This series was on the radio for decades, so there certainly was no shortage of subject material. But if Paul Harvey ever needed another subject for his series, he could have used the front-page story of the July 4, 1863 Harper’s Weekly for a segment of his program The Rest of the Story. On July 4, 1863, the day that Vicksburg fell and the day after Pickett’s Charge, the front-page story in Harper’s Weekly was an account of a bold attempt at espionage by two Confederate officers near Franklin, Tennessee. Mel Maurer, past president of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, included an account of this story in part three of a six-part article which Mel wrote about his life in Franklin. Mel’s account of this tale of espionage appeared in the September 2001 issue of The Charger, and Mel’s article is archived on the Roundtable’s web site. Neither the Harper’s Weekly account nor Mel’s account includes the intriguing side story that is connected to the episode of attempted espionage that occurred outside of Franklin. This history brief describes the intriguing side story, which contains a tragic romance.
The Harper’s Weekly account of the espionage attempt was written by Dr. Wilson Hobbs, Senior Surgeon of the 85th Indiana Infantry Regiment, who was present during the espionage episode. According to this account, on the night of June 8, 1863 two men rode into the camp at Fort Granger. Fort Granger, which was east of Franklin, Tennessee and across the Harpeth River, was built to help protect Franklin against Confederate attacks and was under the command of Colonel John Baird. One of the riders was Confederate Colonel William Orton Williams, although he had changed his name to Lawrence William Orton. The other rider was Orton Williams’ cousin, Confederate Lieutenant Walter G. Peter. They were dressed as Union officers and were taken to Colonel Baird’s headquarters, where they presented themselves as Colonel Lawrence W. Auton and his aide, Major Walter Dunlop. Orton Williams, who did the talking for the pair, showed Baird papers, purportedly their orders from the War Department, which explained that they had been sent from Washington to inspect defenses and troops in the West. One of the papers, which specified that the supposed Union officers were to be allowed to pass through the lines, was purportedly signed by James A. Garfield, chief of staff for William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, of which Baird and his troops at Fort Granger were a part. Orton Williams told Baird that he and his aide had ridden through Murfreesboro, where Rosecrans had his headquarters, and then afterward, while they were on their way to Fort Granger, they had been attacked by Confederate raiders, who captured their servant and took their coats, but that they had managed to elude capture. Because all of their money was in the coats, Orton Williams asked Baird for $50, and he told Baird that they had to continue to Nashville that night. Baird arranged for the money and let the men go their way.
Another Union officer in the camp, Colonel Carter Van Vleck, was suspicious of the men from the time they rode into camp, and according to one of his letters, he made his suspicions known to Colonel Baird. Van Vleck argued that inspectors would not be sent from the East when “we already have more inspectors of our own than we know what to do with.” Van Vleck also asserted that Rosecrans would not have sent the officers unescorted through enemy territory, and he wondered how it was that the officers’ servant and coats could have been captured while they, themselves, managed to escape. Van Vleck concluded “the two men who were attracting so much attention…were certainly spies.” Perhaps Baird was taken by the bearing and assuredness of the supposed Colonel Auton. According to Wilson Hobbs’ Harper’s Weekly account, Orton Williams “was as fine-looking a man as I have ever seen.” Hobbs went on to write about Orton Williams, “I have never known anyone who excelled him as a talker.” Perhaps Baird was taken in by these traits, and his judgement was clouded by them.
However, soon after the supposed Union officers rode away, Baird began to have serious misgivings. He sent a party after them, and when the men were brought back, Baird sent a telegram to Rosecrans’ headquarters in Murfreesboro to inquire about the men. The reply informed Baird that headquarters knew nothing of the men and stated emphatically that no one with those names existed “in this army, nor in any army.” Baird indicated in his subsequent telegram that the men had admitted to being officers in the Confederate army. The telegram that Baird received from Rosecrans’ headquarters in reply, which was signed by James Garfield, read, “The two men are no doubt spies. Call a drum-head court-martial to-night, and if they are found to be spies, hang them before morning, without fail.” Sometime during the exchange of telegrams, a search of the two men was conducted. Their real names were found in the bands of their hats, which were Confederate hats that had been covered with havelocks. Havelocks are pieces of white cloth that covered a soldier’s cap and hung down over the back of the neck. They were intended to protect against sun exposure, but in this instance the havelocks were intended to protect against exposure of the Confederate men’s true identities. In addition, the blade of Walter Peter’s sword was inscribed with his real name followed by the letters C.S.A. The blade of Orton Williams’ sword was likewise inscribed with his real name, and he had on his person $1,500 in Confederate currency. In compliance with the order from Rosecrans’ headquarters, a drumhead trial was called, and Orton Williams and Walter Peter were found guilty. On the morning of June 9, 1863, the two men were hanged. Senior Surgeon Dr. Wilson Hobbs, who wrote the Harper’s Weekly account, was assigned to periodically examine the men as they hung and determine if they were dead. According to Hobbs’ account, three minutes into the hanging Orton Williams grabbed the rope with both hands and briefly pulled himself up, but slumped back down within a couple of minutes. At 17 minutes a pulse was detected in both men, and at 20 minutes there were no signs of life. At the time of their deaths, Orton Williams was 24 and Walter Peter 21.
There are some mysteries associated with the doomed mission of Orton Williams and Walter Peter. No evidence, such as a record of orders, has ever been found that the Confederate government or Confederate military had any part in the attempted espionage. Had this been a mission ordered by Confederate authorities, it is likely that the men would have been provided better disguises or, at the very least, swords that did not have their true identities inscribed on the blades. Because of this and because Orton did almost all of the talking when the two men met with Union officers, it is widely believed that the scheme was solely conceived by Orton Williams, and that he convinced Walter Peter to participate. To this day the objective of their espionage is not known. Why, then, did Orton Williams undertake this risky venture, and what did he want to accomplish? These questions remain unanswered.
But there is more to this story than two young men losing their lives in a daring, perhaps foolhardy attempt at espionage, and it involves Orton Williams. William Orton Williams was born in 1839. His mother was one of three sisters who had the elegant names America, Britannia, and Columbia. Orton’s mother, America, died a couple of months before Orton’s fourth birthday. When Orton was seven, his father, William George Williams, died at the battle of Monterey in the Mexican-American War. Orton’s mother was a niece of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the grandson of Martha Washington and the person who built and lived in Arlington House. George Washington Parke Custis was also the father of Mary Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee. Even before the death of Mary Custis Lee’s parents, the Lee family lived part of the time in Arlington House with Mary’s parents, at least when Robert E. Lee’s military duties permitted it. After the death of Orton’s parents, the orphaned boy was taken in by George Washington Parke Custis, and Orton lived part of his youth in Arlington House. Orton had an older brother, Lawrence, who graduated from West Point in 1852 and served in the Union army during the Civil War. Orton also had an older sister, Martha, who was known in the family by her nickname, Markie, and who was close with the daughters of Robert E. and Mary Custis Lee. Orton and his siblings were second cousins of the Lee children. After the death of Mary Custis Lee’s father in 1857, she inherited Arlington, and Orton and his siblings spent a good deal of time there, in particular Markie, who stayed there so much that she often shared a bedroom with Mary Lee, the Lee’s eldest daughter.
During their youth, Orton developed a close relationship with Agnes Lee, the third oldest of the Lee daughters, who was two years younger than Orton. Eventually this relationship evolved into a romance. Agnes and Orton frequently took long horseback rides together, and Markie reminisced years later that “it was always—where are Agnes & Orton?” Markie recalled Agnes’ appearance after Agnes and Orton returned from one long ride. According to Markie, Agnes had “a glowing face & streaming hair” and that Orton looked at Agnes with “admiring glances.” Orton had long wanted to pursue a military career. Orton’s older brother had already graduated from West Point, but Orton never gained admission there. With a recommendation from Robert E. Lee, Orton finally secured a commission as a second lieutenant in the army in the spring of 1861. When the Civil War broke out, Orton was on the staff of Winfield Scott in Washington, which made Orton privy to much military information. In early May 1861, by which time Robert E. Lee had already resigned from the U.S. Army and was in Richmond, Orton went to Arlington to inform Lee’s wife that the Union army would soon cross the Potomac River and seize Arlington. This gave the Lees time to pack their belongings, which included some items that were once owned by George and Martha Washington, and move these belongings away. The Lee family soon followed, and as Orton had foretold, the Union army seized Arlington. In the meantime, Orton declared his intent to fight for the Confederacy, whereupon Winfield Scott ordered him imprisoned at Governors Island in New York City, because it was feared that Orton knew sensitive information that might be of help to the rebellion. After several weeks in prison, Orton was released when it was felt that any information he had was no longer of use.
After spending some time in the eastern theater, Orton was sent west. He fought with distinction at Shiloh, but his Confederate military career was beginning to unravel. His strict discipline was not well received by his men, who considered him arrogant and condescending. In the most serious incident, Orton killed an enlisted man who resisted one of Orton’s orders. Although Orton was not prosecuted for this, he reputedly brazenly commented about the incident and about the man whom he killed, “For his ignorance, I pitied him; for his insolence, I forgave him; for his insubordination, I slew him.” Shortly after this incident Orton was transferred to Braxton Bragg’s staff, and some have speculated that he changed his name to conceal his identity as the perpetrator of this killing.
At Christmastime in 1862 Orton was able to visit the Lee family, who were staying with relatives in Virginia. According to an account by one of those relatives, Orton was “handsome and charming,” and he brought gifts for Agnes, “a pair of ladies’ riding gauntlets and a riding whip,” gifts that evoked the long horseback rides that Agnes and Orton had gone on before the Civil War. During Orton’s visit, he and Agnes resumed their practice of taking long horseback rides together. At one point during Orton’s visit, he and Agnes were secluded in the parlor, and everyone expected a proposal to take place. But Orton “came out, bade the family goodbye, and rode away alone.” Less than six months later, Orton Williams was dead at the end of a rope.
It is not known if Orton proposed to Agnes, but in all likelihood he at least made his intentions known to her. It is also not known why Agnes spurned Orton, but it most likely was due to a couple of factors. On October 20, 1862, two months before Orton’s Christmas visit and during the time between the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, while Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was recovering from the former battle, Agnes’ older sister, Annie, died at the age of 23 of typhoid fever. Because of their similarity in age, Annie and Agnes had a very close relationship, and by the time of Orton’s visit Agnes most likely had not recovered from the loss of her sister. In addition, the Civil War had hardened Orton Williams, as evidenced by his killing of the enlisted man and his callous comment about the incident. There is evidence that Orton had turned to drinking, and as a result he had changed markedly from the dashing young man who captivated Agnes prior to the war. But even though Agnes’ affection for Orton had waned, she was still deeply troubled by his death. According to a relative, after Orton’s execution Agnes was changed forever. This relative wrote, “The terrible death of Orton Williams was a shock to Agnes from which she never recovered.” Agnes was a very introspective and contemplative person, and it is not surprising that, no matter how her feelings toward Orton had changed, she was deeply impacted by the death of someone toward whom she had felt so much affection, in particular because of the circumstances of that death.
On October 15, 1873, eight years after the Civil War and 11 years after her secluded Christmastime meeting with Orton, Agnes Lee died at the age of 32. Agnes suffered from neuralgia her whole life, and when she died, her mother had to see another of her daughters precede her in death. According to an account written by Agnes’ younger sister, Mildred, when Agnes was on her deathbed, she asked that her Bible be given to Orton’s sister, Markie. When Agnes made this request, she gave evidence that even on her deathbed she was thinking of Orton, because Agnes said of that Bible, “You know Orton gave it to me.” Just before Agnes died, she called for her older brother, Custis, and said to him, “You must not forget me when I am gone,” to which Custis reassured his dying sister, “Aggie, none of us will do that.”
None of Robert E. Lee’s four daughters ever married. One factor which likely played a role in this was Lee’s possessiveness of his daughters. A Lee biographer wrote, “Neither Lee nor his daughters were aware of how possessive he was, or of how much they acquiesced in that possessiveness.” Lee’s daughter Annie died in 1862 at age 23, and there is no evidence that she ever had any serious suitors. Sadly, this may have been at least partly due to her physical appearance. Annie had a conspicuous reddish birthmark on her face, and one of her eyes was disfigured by a childhood accident, which caused her to lose sight in that eye. Mary, the eldest of the Lee daughters and the second oldest of the seven Lee children, lived to age 83 without ever marrying or ever showing any interest in marrying. Mary was outspoken and fiercely independent, not only by the standards of her time, but even, to some degree, by today’s standards. For example, she spent most of her post-Civil War life far away from her family on lengthy travels in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Mary’s independent nature may have been the reason that she never married. Mildred, the youngest of the Lee children, lived to age 59 and died suddenly and unexpectedly in New Orleans. Although there is evidence that some men showed interest in her, there is no evidence that there was ever a serious relationship. After Robert E. Lee’s death, Mildred wrote of her father, “To me he seems a Hero—& all other men small in comparison.” It may be that living in the imposing shadow of her legendary father was the reason that Mildred never married. Of the four Lee daughters, only Agnes came close to being married, and Agnes’ suitor, Orton Williams, who concocted a mysterious and ill-fated espionage scheme that cost him his life at Fort Granger, came closer than any man to being the son-in-law of Robert E. Lee. “And now you know the rest of the story.”