Early in the Civil War, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, then still the general-in-chief of all the Northern armies, was in the habit of writing short daily bulletins for President Abraham Lincoln. “These were copied by a young officer, a relative of the Lee family, in whom the general took an extraordinary interest, and whom he supposed he had warmly attached to himself by many signal favors,” wrote the then–assistant adjutant general of the Army, Edward D. Townsend, after the war.
Scott, himself Virginia-born, was keenly disappointed when his beloved Robert E. Lee refused the offer to command a Northern army and instead opted to resign from the U.S. Army altogether and side with newly seceded Virginia, which was his native state also. But Scott later would draw the line at giving that young officer who was related to Mrs. Lee, one William Orton Williams by name, full access to every bulletin going to Lincoln. Not when the bulletin one day concerned the pending Federal seizure of the grand Arlington estate across the Potomac River from Washington that was the ancestral home of Mrs. Lee and her prominent family.
“For prudential reasons this bulletin was copied by another person,” said Townsend, “and it was not intended that the young aide should know anything about it.”
But apparently he did…and thereby hangs a still-mysterious and convoluted tale of the American Civil War.
In the first place, and by Townsend’s account, General Scott left the bulletin on a table, “and the young man read it.” And further, “He doubtless made it known to Mrs. Lee.” Most historical accounts agree that it was her cousin Orton Williams, a suitor of one of the Lee daughters, who warned Mrs. Lee that the Federals were about to seize Arlington. As a result, she hurriedly packed a few valuables and left, thus taking up a semimigrant life with no permanent home to call her own for the duration. Lee himself already had departed for Richmond for duty, first as a Virginia general and then as the most renowned of all Confederate generals.
As is well known, Arlington became a Union hospital and cemetery, the core of today’s vast and storied Arlington National Cemetery, its white-columned manor house still overlooking the nation’s capital.
Mrs. Lee many years after the war once revisited their former home. By then she was burdened with many sad memories. And one of them certainly would have been of her cousin Orton, who joined the ranks of the Confederacy and then, after months of silence, returned one Christmas to the family bosom strangely and darkly changed.
By this time, Christmas 1862, he apparently had shot one of his own soldiers at Shiloh for being slow to obey an order, and, oddly, he had changed his name to Lawrence Orton. In addition, wrote Mary P. Coulling in her book The Lee Girls, “His finely chiseled features seemed to have coarsened, as if he had been drinking heavily.” Unhappily, too, one day, after a private talk with Agnes, he abruptly left, not to be heard of again until June 1863, when the family was shocked by a story appearing in the newspapers of the day.
Orton, it seems, and another young man, also a cousin, both in Yankee uniforms, had been stopped by Union troops near Franklin, Tenn., tried during the night by a drumhead court-martial and hanged the next day as spies. Orton had claimed to be a U.S. Army colonel named Lawrence Orton, but a search of his person revealed he was carrying $1,000, while his saber and hatband both gave his real name and rank in the Confederate Army. His companion was his cousin, Walter Gibson Peter.
The order to try the pair overnight and execute them if they were found to be spies allegedly came from a headquarters staff in Murfreesboro, Tenn., that included Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield, a future president of the United States. The order later, after the fact, was publicly approved by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
The Lees—and Southerners in general— were both shocked and outraged, but other, more crucial events intervened. Lee’s cavalry officer son Rooney was wounded at Brandy Station, Va., the very day of Orton’s execution. In the meantime, Robert E. Lee was leading his Army of Northern Virginia toward a then little-noted town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.
Daughter Agnes, whose sister Anne had died of typhoid less than a year earlier, was staggered by the news of Orton’s death. A brother-in-law said she never recovered from the shock. On her own early deathbed in 1873, Agnes asked to have her Bible given to Orton’s sister Markie. “You know,” she said, “Orton gave it to me.” These were almost the last words she ever uttered.
As for Orton’s own final thoughts, he wrote Markie a farewell note just before his death. Having admitted to his captors that he was a Confederate officer, he now wrote to his sister, oddly enough, with a vehement denial. “Do not believe that I am a spy,” he declared. “With my dying breath I deny the charge.”
Mysterious to the bitter end, Orton never revealed what mission would have prompted his appearance in Union-held territory, in Union military garb, with the $1,000 found on his person.
Ironically, too, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, back in 1861, had suspected that old friend Winfield Scott deliberately sent warning word of the Federal plans to seize Arlington by way of the same William Orton Williams. And who knows, perhaps he did.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.