Who Was William Orton Williams?

William Orton Williams

By Colin Woodward

In a letter of 1861 July 8, Robert E. Lee makes a reference to an odd, hard-to-read name. It took some time for the staff at the LFDA to decipher Lee’s handwriting. The name, it turns out, was “Orton.” Orton was William Orton Williams, a boyfriend of Lee’s daughter and a man with a tragic and controversial Civil War career.

William Orton Williams/Lawrence Williams Orton (1839-1863) was a cousin of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. He grew up in “Tudor Place,” a mansion within sight of Arlington. His sister was Markie Williams, a frequent correspondent of Robert E. Lee (some of her Mexican War era letters are available on the LFDA). Orton dated Lee’s daughter, Agnes (1841-1873), though General Lee and his wife thought Williams—who had a reputation as a hard drinker—unstable.

Eleanor Agnes Lee

Williams was born 1839 July 7 in Buffalo, New York. He was the son of Captain George W. Williams (1801-1846) and America (yes, that was her real name!) Pinckney Peter Williams (1803-1842). His father was killed at the battle of Monterrey in 1846 July. Parentless, Williams attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, the same school that educated Robert E. Lee. Williams was interested in attending the U.S. Military Academy, but he never enrolled at West Point. In March of 1861, nevertheless, Williams was appointed a second lieutenant and served on Winfield Scott’s staff.

Battle of Monterrey, 1846

Williams still had a romantic interest in Agnes and visited Arlington. After the war began, against General Scott’s orders, Williams warned the Lees that the army was going to seize Arlington. Upon his return to Washington, and before he could offer his resignation, Scott had him arrested and placed in prison at Governor’s Island. Williams was released a few weeks later.

After joining the Confederate army, rumors arose that Williams had acted as a spy for General Lee. Rather than serve on Lee’s staff, Williams was ordered west to serve on the staff of Leonidas Polk. Williams became a pariah among fellow Confederates for having shot an enlisted man for disobeying an order. Williams, though, was unapologetic. He decided to change his name to Lawrence Williams Orton and joined the staff of Braxton Bragg.

rebel-spies-hanged, harpers 7-4-63
Hanging of Orton and Peter in 1863. Image from 1863 July 4 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Orton rose to the rank of colonel after the battle of Shiloh and commanded a cavalry brigade. During Christmas 1862, Williams returned to Virginia, where he visited Agnes Lee at Hickory Hill. He brought presents for Agnes, but Agnes was not interested in any romance.

Rejected, Orton returned to the army. In June 1863, he entered the Union lines at Franklin, Tennessee, with the intention of inspecting posts in Franklin. With him was Walter Gibson “Gip” Peter (1842-1863), who was going by the name of Major Dunlap. Peter was also Williams’s cousin. The two men had false papers with them. Suspicious Federals captured them and charged them with spying. A court martial was called and convicted the men quickly.

peter and williams
Peter (left) and Williams (right)

Orton denied he was a spy. “Do not believe that I am a spy,” he wrote his sister Markie, who was living in Washington, D.C. “With my dying breath I deny the charge. Do not grieve too much for me. . . . Altho I die a horrid death I will meet my death with the fortitude becoming the son of a man whose last words to his children were, ‘Tell them I died at the head of my column.'”

Williams and Peter were hanged on 1863 June 9 for spying on Union forces in Tennessee. According to Union colonel J. P. Baird, the two men died “like soldiers.”

Robert E. Lee was incensed about Orton’s death. Orton might not have been good enough for Agnes, but he was a devoted Confederate. After the war, General Lee said his “blood boils at the thought of the atrocious outrage, against every manly and Christian sentiment which the Great God alone is able to forgive.”

Orton denied he was a spy. But what, then, was he doing in a Union camp snooping around?  Colonel J. P. Baird said the men “were not ordinary spies” and “would not disclose their true object. Their conduct was very singular indeed; I can make nothing of it.” Orton and Peter were hanged before all answers surrounding their mission were answered. The two men’s bodies were returned to Washington, D.C., where they are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.

It seems that Orton was willing to maintain his “cover” even after he was found guilty of spying. To be hanged–regardless of the crime–was dishonorable. And honor was important for southern men. If he was not spying in Franklin, then what could he have been doing? Whatever the truth of Orton’s story, his Civil War career is another of the many tragedies of the war and to which the Lee family was witness to.


The Confederate Flying Machine

By Caitlin Connelly

In the summer of 2011, an amazing find was uncovered in a rare book shop: detailed designs for a flying machine. The incredible part? The plans dated from 1863-64, forty years before the Wright brothers’ famous flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The story behind them sounds almost like the setup of a Jules Verne novel: in the midst of the Civil War, a Richmond dentist dreams of building a steam-powered flying machine. Of course, Dr. Robert Finley Hunt’s goals were not to go on a Verne-esque adventure, but rather to wage war.

The Giffard Dirigible

Though Hunt’s plans were innovative, the idea of human flight was not novel. Around 1485 Leonardo da Vinci sketched designs for an ornithopter, a flying device with wings that flap, though it’s unlikely he intended to actually construct it. In 1799 Sir George Cayley, sometimes called the “father of aviation,” came up with the idea for the modern airplane, a heavier-than-air device with fixed wings and separate lift, control, and propulsion systems, and 50 years later he built the first glider to successfully carry a human. In 1852 Henri Giffard built the Giffard Dirigible, the first steam-powered and steerable airship (Giffard was able to fly it 17 miles in one direction, but the engine was too weak to fly against the wind to go back). And during the Civil War, both sides used balloons to conduct reconnaissance.

One of Hunt’s sketches, showing how to change the position of the wings (source: RR Auction)

So what made Hunt’s designs different? For one thing, unlike the balloons and dirigibles of the time, Hunt’s machine did not require hot air or gas to fly. Instead, it used a propeller, driven by a rotary engine. The designs also seem to show a vessel that would be far smaller than any balloon or airship. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hunt’s plan was to use his machine in battle to bomb Union forces. There had been some thought in both the Union and Confederacy to drop bombs from balloons, but nothing ever came to fruition.

We saw during the World Wars the value – and resulting destruction – of having command of the skies. If the Confederates had been able to construct a flying machine like Hunt designed, the advantage they would have had over the Union would have been immense.

(Source: RR Auction)

But we all know that the Confederacy never developed Hunt’s flying machine. Despite getting Jefferson Davis’s approval and support, Hunt was never able to find enough financial backing to bankroll his project or an engineer willing to build it. The general consensus at the time seemed to be that Hunt’s plans had too many design flaws to be workable. They believed Hunt had overestimated the engine’s ability to keep the machine in the air, and described another (unknown) error as “so obvious on reflection that no discussion is required.” This may refer to the engine being too heavy to get off the ground, as Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, believes it would have been.

Despite these difficulties, Hunt continued to push to make his dream a reality even after the war. In 1865 he obtained a patent for his idea in Washington D.C., and seems to have been looking for funding as late as 1872. He never got it. But in 1889 he filed for a patent for a fan operating device, the design of which may have been inspired in part by his flying device. Even after 30 years, it seems like the dentist with a fascination for flight had not lost his interest.

(Source: RR Auction)

The designs, along with correspondence from Davis and other Confederate officials as well as newspaper clippings from the 1890s concerning flying machines, went up for auction in September 2011. They sold for over $27,000 to an anonymous buyer.


Lee Letter of the Week: This 1867 letter from Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, to Walter H. Taylor, who served as an aide to General Lee during the war, concerning her family’s move to Canada is pretty interesting. She mentions her husband’s homesickness for the South, saying that the only thing preventing him from going back after being released from prison was the belief that it would worsen Yankee treatment of Southerners.

The “Other” Battle of Fredericksburg

Slaughter Pen Farm

By Colin Woodward

Students of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War know about the battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought on 1862 December 13. The best known portion of the battle took place at Marye’s Heights, which today is on the outskirts of downtown Fredericksburg. There, at the northern end of the fighting, Union forces under Ambrose E. Burnside launched a series of hopeless assaults against the well-protected Confederates under Lee and his corps commander James Longstreet.

Marye’s Heights, however, was just one, albeit bloody, portion of the field. The southern extreme of the battle took place at Slaughter Pen Farm. I visited that area briefly the other day. The preserved area is much larger, and flatter, than Marye’s Heights. It is the site of a working farm and so has not fallen prey to the kind of urban construction that has impinged on Marye’s Heights.

Slaughter Pen Farm is aptly named. The fighting there was just as vicious as that at Marye’s Heights. The battle did not begin well for the Union. Just down the road from the place is a marker dedicated to the young artilleryman John Pelham, who, for an hour, singlehandedly held up the Union attack along the southern portion of the Confederate line. Armed with one cannon, Pelham poured fire into the Yankees until he ran out of ammunition. “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!” said General Lee when he heard about Pelham’s exploits. Despite the “Gallant Pelham’s” efforts, he alone could not hold off thousands of Yankee attackers.


Marker not far from the farm.

Once the Union attack got underway, Northern troops encountered a long ditch that they didn’t know was there before heading into the field. The obstruction further delayed the Yankees, who became disorganized.

The Confederates opposing them were under Stonewall Jackson, who had about 37,000 troops to hold back the 65,000 men under the Union commanders William B. Franklin, George Gordon Meade, and John Gibbon. Despite their advantage in numbers, the North only sent about 8,000 men into combat at Slaughter Pen Farm.

Had the Northern assault been properly directed and reinforced, the Yankees might have turned the Confederate right flank and have won the battle for Fredericksburg. Jackson’s men, however, in intense fighting that left 9,000 men killed wounded or captured (5,000 Union, 4,000 Confederate), held their ground.

For the Rebels it was hot work. Around noon, the Union made its final concerted assault. The fighting descended into hand-to-hand combat along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad tracks. General Meade’s and Gibbon’s assaults made progress, but Gibbon was wounded and the Confederates held on and were able to make a fierce counterattack that drove back the Union men.

Abandoned house at the battlefield site.

The fighting at Slaughter Pen Farm was just as vicious as at Marye’s Heights (though Confederates suffered far fewer casualties at the latter location). But, unfortunately, we don’t remember it. In hindsight, the bloodshed along the sunken road at Marye’s Heights came to epitomize many things: the stupidity of the Union high command under Burnside, the gallantry of Northern soldiers (especially those of the Irish Brigade) in the face of hopeless odds, and Robert E. Lee’s mastery of the battlefield.

The Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, while sweet for the Rebels, was not decisive. In May of 1863, fighting would occur again at Marye’s Heights as part of the battle of Chancellorsville, most of which was waged not far down the road. John Pelham, who was killed in March of that year, would not take part. At Chancellorsville, the Confederates would win yet another victory. But the Rebels would lose more men than they had at Fredericksburg–one of whom was the irreplaceable Stonewall Jackson.

Maj. John Pelham. Hero of Fredericksburg, he was killed a few months later.

The struggle for Marye’s Heights is one of the best known stories of the Civil War. The story of Slaughter Pen Farm, however, shows that the battle of Fredericksburg was more uncertain and complicated than many of us remember it. Bravery was abundant there, too. And the toll in human life just as great.

Those who visit the Fredericksburg battlefield should make sure they visit the entire site, not just Marye’s Heights, to get a sense of what happened on that cold, overcast, and bloody late fall day in 1862.


Robert Mayo: “Long Ago Forgotten”

By Caitlin Connelly

Robert Mayo is a curiously enigmatic figure. You may remember him from this earlier blog post. Bits and pieces of his life appear here and there, but as far as I can tell there’s been no effort to put it all together. The picture that appears is more interesting than you’d think, so I decided to share it.

The 14th Street Bridge in Richmond, c.1917. It’s also called the Mayo Bridge, named for Robert’s grandfather William, who was a surveyor who planned out the city.

Mayo was born in 1784 to a distinguished Virginia family. Little is known about his life until 1808, when he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as a Doctor of Medicine.

Mayo was not greatly interested in being a physician. Though he practiced for 22 years, his letters from that time reveal his preference for literature, poetry, and philosophy. He wrote to Henry Lee IV describing his idea for “A Digest of what is curious & beautiful in literature” containing selected texts along with editorial comments. Mayo also published several volumes on history and mythology, but, notably, nothing on medicine, biology, or chemistry.

Imacon Color Scanner
1824 Thomas Sully portrait of Andrew Jackson

Almost twenty years after Lee’s 1821-22 scandal, Mayo became involved in a new controversy, which had its origins in the late 1820s. Mayo, like Lee, was an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson, and edited the Jackson Democrat newspaper during the 1828 election year. In 1830 he quit his Richmond practice, got a job in the Treasury Department, and moved to Washington, D.C.

While staying in Washington, Mayo became acquainted with Sam Houston, who eventually revealed to Mayo his plan to liberate Texas from Mexico. With the hope that it would bring him into Jackson’s good graces and result in a more prestigious position, Mayo wrote a letter to Jackson concerning the plot. The President, who may have already known about Houston’s designs, wrote a letter to William Fulton, the Secretary of the Territory of Arkansas (where the conspirators planned to gather), saying that while Mayo’s information was probably erroneous, Fulton should be on the lookout for anything suspicious.

“Surrender of Santa Anna” by William Henry Huddle shows the Mexican general Santa Anna surrendering to a wounded Sam Houston.

Despite Mayo’s warning, Houston led Texas to victory during the 1836 Texas Revolution. Mayo, meanwhile, continued to work in the Treasury, growing frustrated about his political frustrations and disillusionment with Jackson’s administration.

At the the end of his presidency, Jackson began disposing of old papers and returning letters to their senders. Mayo received a stack of such letters, but included among them by accident was a confidential copy of Jackson’s letter to Fulton. Interested, Mayo read it, and instead of returning it to the President he delivered it to the opposition party, lead by Jackson’s political enemy, John Quincy Adams.

1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams

Seeking to humiliate Jackson, Adams, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, requested from the State Department all documents concerning American neutrality over the Texas Revolution, particularly the Fulton letter. When the State Department could not find it, Jackson wrote a letter to Fulton asking for the original. Fulton was unable to access his letters at the time, but replied that he recalled the contents and had found no evidence of any conspiracy at the time. Then, in an address to Congress, Adams introduced the Mayo-Jackson and Jackson-Fulton letters as proof that Jackson had, in fact, known about the plot. He thought that the Jackson-Fulton letter he possessed was the original, not a copy, and that Jackson had decided not to send it to avoid interfering with Houston’s plans. This would be particularly scandalous in light of the fact that shortly before writing the letter, Jackson delivered his annual address to Congress and spoke of his desire for peace and friendship with Mexico.

Though the original letter appeared later, the damage was done. Jackson furiously declared that Mayo had stolen the copy, a charge echoed by Jackson’s friend and Washington Globe editor Francis Preston Blair (who, by the way, was the father-in-law of Samuel Philips Lee) and his partner John Rives. Insulted, Mayo sued Blair and Rives for libel in 1840. The case was thrown out by the courts the next year, though Mayo won a similar case around the same time.

Perhaps as testament to his unpopularity with political giants such as Jackson and Blair, Mayo spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity, continuing to work at the Treasury Department until his death in 1864. In the 1860 work Life of Andrew Jackson, noted biographer James Parton called Mayo a “once a well known name, long ago forgotten.”


Lee Letter of the Week: The November 24, 1821 letter from Henry Lee IV’s wife Anne to her grandmother concerning Mayo’s proposal, and her grandmother’s answer. Grandma Rose very reasonably points out Mayo’s “piece of strange conduct” as a “total stranger.”

Searching for Stonewall’s Arm


By Colin Woodward

After some searching, I finally found Stonewall Jackson’s arm. Actually, I found where his arm supposedly is buried. Now that I have found the marker, located on the Wilderness battlefield, west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, I can mark off another item on my Civil War bucket list.

The Civil War has students, scholars, buffs, and fanatics. If you have visited the site of the headstone for Stonewall Jackson’s arm, you might fall into the latter category. Finding Stonewall’s arm, however, took some doing.

Anyone who studies the Civil War knows that Stonewall Jackson was shot on 1863 May 2 by his own troops during the battle of Chancellorsville. The general was doing some night recon after his masterful flank attack when jittery North Carolinians shot at him. After being hit, Stonewall was carried a few miles way. The wound required the amputation of the general’s left arm, which was performed the day after he was shot. By then, the Confederates could claim a great victory against the much larger Union army under Joe Hooker.

After the amputation, Stonewall became sick with pneumonia (some have argued that he might’ve been getting sick before the amputation) and died on 1863 May 10. The South mourned. Said Robert E. Lee of Jackson, “he has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” In his General Orders No. 61, Lee wrote, “The daring Skill & energy of this great & good Soldier, by the decree of an All Wise Providence are now lost to us. But while we mourn his death, we feel that his Spirit Still lives, & will inspire the whole army with his indomitable courage & unshaken Confidence in God, as our hope & strength.”

Apparently, Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy, a military chaplain, buried Jackson’s arm not far from where it was removed. Today, the marker for Stonewall’s arm is in a field close to the Ellwood house, which was used as the headquarters for the Union general Gouverneur K. Warren during the Wilderness battle, which was fought on much of the same ground as the Chancellorsville fight of the year before.

General G. K. Warren. Warren is best known as having helped save Little Round Top for the Union at Gettysburg.

Earlier in the year, on a rainy Sunday, I drove with my daughter, who is three, to find the Stonewall marker. Despite having studied the Civil War for most of my life, I never gave much thought to looking for Stonewall’s arm. However, last year, I began following “StonewallJacksonsArm/Old Tom Fool” on Twitter, who posts, with much humor, about Jackson and his Civil War travels. How could I call myself a Civil War scholar and not know where Stonewall’s arm was buried?

I became determined the find where the marker was. Yet, there is no sign that leads you to where it is. On my first attempt to find the grave, despite the fact that my iPhone was telling me I was in the right place, I ended up wandering aimlessly around a cemetery near the Wilderness battlefield. I couldn’t find the marker. It was frustrating. Once again, I was a Yankee bested by an elusive Confederate.

Last week, I visited Montpelier, the home of James Madison. To get to Montpelier from Fredericksburg, you cut through the Civil War battlefields that were part of the Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Mine Run campaigns. With some time left in my day after visiting Montpelier, I was determined to find where Stonewall’s arm was buried.

Ellwood house at the Wilderness battlefield.

This time, I found it. Or did I? I spoke with a tour guide at the Ellwood house, which is run by the National Parks Service. I told the guide that I was looking for Stonewall’s arm. He said that it was a short walk from the house. The area around the marker, however, was dug up some years ago, and the diggers found no evidence of an arm.

So, where is it? After doing a little research on the history of Stonewall’s arm (can a book be far behind?) Union soldiers apparently dug up the arm in 1864 during the Wilderness battle. But no one knows where they reburied it or where the arm is now.

Stonewall memorial in Lexington, VA.

Most of Stonewall Jackson’s remains are in downtown Lexington, where he was buried. The general was never reunited with his arm. The fact that people like me go out of their way to visit where Stonewall’s arm reputedly is buried seems a fittingly odd memorial to one of the oddest figures of the Civil War.

How to find Stonewall’s arm: The marker for Stonewall’s arm is located a short walk from the Ellwood house on the Wilderness battlefield. Find the Ellwood house, and you are as good as there. To get to the marker, though, you will need to get on Route 20, which merges with Route 3, not far from the Ellwood House. If you are traveling east or west along Route 3, your turn for Route 20 will be where you will see a Sheetz and some other stores. Once you turn at the Sheetz and are heading west on Route 20, the road to get to the Ellwood House will be a short drive away, on your left.

Cannonballs in a tree. Part of the exhibit inside the Ellwood house.

The Ellwood house also has an interesting history. Visitors looking for Stonewall’s arm should take 20 or 30 minutes to get a tour inside. The grounds outside are nice, too.

Celebrating the Fourth of July

By Caitlin Connelly

Richard Henry Lee, advocate for independence and a signer of the Declaration of Indpendence

In 1870 the 4th of July was made a federal holiday, and since 1941 all federal employees have been given a paid holiday to celebrate. Today most Americans observe Independence Day with barbecues, pool parties, and fireworks shows, and you can easily see twice as many flags – between actual flags and all of the flag-themed clothing and paper dinnerware – on this day than at any other time of the year. It’s a proud, enthusiastic display of patriotism in celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (two of the signers of which, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, lived at Stratford Hall).

In the 240 years since then, how has the 4th of July changed?

For one thing, it nearly wasn’t the 4th of July! The Declaration of Independence was formally adopted by the Continental Congress on the 4th, but they voted in favor of independence two days earlier. Though people immediately began commemorating the 4th, John Adams always maintained that Independence Day was July 2nd, and on that principle refused to attend any celebrations on the 4th. Maybe we should be thankful no one listened to him – “the 2nd of July” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!

John Trumbull’s famous painting, commissioned in 1817, of the drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work on June 28, 1776

The first celebrations stemmed from an earlier tradition of celebrating the king’s birthday (King George III was born 1738 June 4) with parades, speeches, bonfires, concerts, and the firing of cannons. By 1776, however, general sentiment had largely turned against the British. With the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, mock funerals were held for the king across the colonies in celebration. The old birthday events were carried over and became part of a new holiday. The festivities of 1776 also involved the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence.

When Washington D.C. became the national capital, it also became the focus of July 4th celebrations. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson held a public reception in the State Dining Room at the White House, a tradition continued by all of the presidents until Ulysses Grant (who began a new tradition of vacationing to the Jersey shore to escape the Washington heat). Washington was also the location for many grand parades and concerts. For many years the Marine Band would perform for the public every weekend on the South Lawn of the White House from June to September.

An etching of the Royal Fireworks display on the Thames, London, England in 1749

As for the most popular activity, fireworks as we know them did not exist for the first few decades of celebration. The earliest documentation of fireworks dates to 7th century Tang Dynasty China. Arab traders acquired knowledge of gunpowder and its uses in the 13th century, and from there spread to Europe. Chinese fireworks gained popularity in Europe in the 17th century, but did not become the colorful displays modern audiences are used to until the 1830s when Italian pyrotechnicians began adding metallic compounds that produce intense light and bright colors when burned to the gunpowder. Since then many different kinds of fireworks have been developed, allowing modern shows to be varied and dazzling.

Interestingly, the 4th has also been marked by several notable deaths. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – political enemies who later became friends, and the second and third presidents, respectively – famously died on July 4th, 1826, a few hours apart from one other. In 1831 James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on July 4th. Nineteen years later, Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, celebrated a fateful 4th of July. It’s suspected that he contracted cholera from drinking contaminated water during the festivities, and he died five days later.

On a positive note, Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4th, 1872 in Vermont. He would later go on to be the thirtieth president of the United States.

By the end of the 19th century, 4th of July celebrations had come to focus more on leisure activities and gatherings of family and friends, resembling modern celebrations. But clearly many of the earliest activities have carried on, becoming integral parts of this uniquely American holiday.


Lee Letter of the Week: In celebration of Independence Day, take a look at this 1776 letter from Richard Henry Lee to Patrick Henry discussing the grim situation facing the Continental Army as it gets ready to survive the winter of 1776-77.