About William Orton Williams
Member of Peter family of Tudor Place; hanged as a spy with his cousin Walter Gibson Peter in 1863. http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=720
l. 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.
Col. William Orton Williams's Timeline
Buffalo Erie County New York
Franklin Williamson County Tennessee
Oak Hill Cemetery Washington District of Columbia