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.


Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at www.leefamilyarchive.org. The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

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