The Execution of Williams and Peters.

“Williams, C.S.A.”

By William Gilmore Beymer – published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, September, 1909. (see related 1863 Harper’s Weekly article )

“Who had done his work, and held his peace, and had no fear to die.”

William Orton Williams aka Lawrence W. AutonTwo men came riding out of the dusk of the June day. Why? For nearly fifty years the reason has been sought—and never found. They came from out the dusk, tarried for a little in the twilight, then passed on into the great night, bearing with them the answer to a question that will never die so long as history tells their story.

If it might have been that they had lived, and that their completed work had been an answer to that ride up Figuer Hill, what might not the history of the Confederacy be to-day?—that Confederacy, passionate, hot-blooded, all-loving, all-sacrificing Confederacy, struggling to slay a nation, travailing to bear a nation, and who died, her nation yet unborn. They, too, died, and with them passed the answer.

The 8th of June, 1863, was nearly done. Within the earthen bastions of Fort Granger, perched on the crest of Figuer Hill, the camp-fires which had cooked the evening meal were dying to dull red heaps of embers; to the west, at the foot of the bluff, a hundred and fifty feet beneath the muzzles of Fort Granger’s guns, lay the little town of Franklin, the gray thread of the Harpeth River between. The Tennessee hills ringed the town; the enemy were somewhere beyond the hills, for the war had come the winter before to Tennessee. “Stone’s River” had been fought at the coming of the new year, and the Confederate army had sullenly withdrawn to the south, to Tullahoma, thirty-six miles away. Winter had passed, spring was passing into early summer; Rosecrans sulked at Murfreesborough; Bragg, at Tullahoma, lay in wait for him. But the cavalry of the South waited for no man. They menaced everywhere, but most of all at Franklin, the Federal right—an outpost—weakened now by the withdrawal of all but two regiments and a small force of cavalry. Forrest’s cavalry ranged the country somewhere just beyond the hills; Wheeler was circling, no man of the North knew where, yet very sure were they that he would strike—somewhere. That part of Tennessee dominated by Federal troops, by the Army of the Cumberland, was in shape a fan, a partially spread fan upside down. Nashville, the base of supplies, was the pivot; from Nashville there radiated roads—pikes they call them in Tennessee—the sticks of the fan: to the southeast, to Murfreesborough—and Rosecrans with the main body of his troops; to Triune, more nearly south—the vertex of the fan; to Franklin, a little southwest—the outpost of the army. Of dark blue was this half-open fan, dark blue, dusty and worn; not jewelled, but aglitter with points of steel.

Franklin had been attacked on the 4th, and Colonel Baird had beaten off the attacking force. Since then they had waited, watchful and oppressed; expecting Forrest, dreading Wheeler, all hut certain of the return of the Confederates from Spring Hill, but six miles to the south.

It was hot that night, they say—”a hot, murky night.” At headquarters, up at Fort Granger, Col. John P. Baird—of the 85th Indiana—commandant of the post, sat at his tent door, talking with Colonel Van Vleck—that same Carter Van Vleck from whose time-yellowed letters have been plucked so many of the intimate details of this story.

James A. GarfieldTwo men rode out of the dusk; two stranger officers, unattended, unescorted. Colonel Baird, in surprise, rose to greet them. They were superbly mounted; their uniforms and equipments showed them to he officers of rank and distinction. At their new merino havelocks Colonels Baird and Van Vleck must have stared; havelocks were unknown to officers and men, either North or South, except as something “foreign,” something to he looked on askance. They dismounted and strode forward, tall, straight, dignified. The elder and taller of the two introduced himself as Colonel Auton of the Army of the Potomac; his companion as Major Dunlop, assistant in the inspection of the Western troops, for which business they had been sent from Washington. They had just come from General Rosecrans at Murfreesborough. Oh yes, they had of course come through Triune, and had seen Gen. Gordon Granger too. As this Colonel Auton talked he made more and more of an impression on Colonel Baird; it was with positive regret that he heard they must push on to Nashville that very night. There was something very engaging about this handsome, dignified young officer, with his easy grace of bearing; a note of brilliance to his conversation, which was withal frank and quiet; an indefinable air of distinction and individuality in all he said and did. Colonel Baird seems to have grown more and more interested and attracted. He urged them to stay the night with him.

It was impossible. Would Colonel Baird kindly have their passes made out? And so the order to make out the passes was given, and while they waited, Colonel Auton told of their misfortune. They had lost their way from Murfreesborough, and had got down as far as Eagleville; the rebels had attacked them, had captured their servant, his (Colonel Auton’s) coat and all his money; they had been pursued for a long distance and had finally escaped with difficulty. It was all very unfortunate. The distressful situation of the two officers appealed to Colonel Baird. The passes to Nashville were brought out just then, but were sent back for correction; they had been made out to Colonel “Orton.” Auton led Colonel Baird aside; it was most unfortunate, but — they were quite without money. Could Colonel Baird oblige them with the loan of one hundred dollars apiece — any sum, then—for their immediate expenses ? Colonel Baird did not have the money, but went at once to Colonel Van Vleck, who had been sitting smoking in incredulous silence; of him he asked the money—when they were out of earshot, that the strangers might not be embarrassed! Colonel Van Vleck’s letter of October 28, 1883, gives his own reply:

I told him that I thought the men were not what they represented themselves to be; for, said I, the Government would not send two officers of their rank from the Potomac to inspect the Army of the Cumberland, when we already have more inspectors of our own than we know what to do with. Neither would Roseerans send them from Murfreesborough through the enemy’s country without an escort, and if he had done so foolish a thing, and they are what they pretend to be, why should they insist upon going to Nashville to-night without any offer to inspect the troops here, and this after such peril to get here? Again, I added, is it not strange, if true, that the rebels should be able to capture the Colonel’s servant and coat and all his money and yet he get off so safely himself and with his lieutenant?

I declined to let the money go, immediately arose, and went to my own tent, saying to my surgeon, whom I found there, that the two men who were attracting so much attention by their havelocks were certainly spies.

Colonel Baird, disquieted, asked awkwardly for their orders; Colonel Auton, who seemed to have taken no offence at the request coming at such a time, readily handed them to him, and with returning composure he read—written on the long envelope:

Headquarters Department of the Cumberland
Murfreesborough, May 30, 1863.

All guards and outposts will immediately pass without delay Col. Auton and his assistant, Major Dunlop.

By command of Major-General Rosecrans:

J. A. Garfield,
Vol. Chief of Staff and Asst. Adjutant.Gen.

There were many papers in the envelope, and Colonel Baird gravely read them all:

Special orders No. 140. IV…
War Department,
Adjt Gen’s Office.
Washington, May 21, 1863.

Col. Lawrence W. Auton, cavalry, United States Army, and acting special inspector-general, is hereby relieved from duty along the “Line of the Potomac.” He will immediately proceed to the West, and minutely inspect the Department of the Ohio and the Department of the Cumberland, in accordance with special instructions Nos. 140-162 and 155, furnished him from this office and that of the Paymaster-General.

V. Major George Dunlop, assistant quartermaster, is hereby relieved from duty in this city. He will report immediately to Col. Auton for duty.

By order of the Secretary of War:

E. D. Townsend,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

Col. Lawrence W. Auton, U.S.A. Special Inspector-General.


Special orders No. 140. V…
War Department,
Adjt. Gen’s Dept.
Washington, May 25, 1863.

Major Geo. Dunlop, Assistant Quartermaster, is hereby relieved from duty in this city. He will report immediately to Colonel Aston, special inspector general, for duty.

By order of the Secretary of War

E. D. Townsend,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

Maj. George Dunlop. assistant quartermaster,
Special Duty.


Headquarters Department of the Cumberland
Murfeesborough, Tenn., May 30, 1863.

Col. L. W. Auton, Cavalry Special Inspector-Gen.


The major-general commanding desires me to say to you that he desires, that, if you can spare the time at present, that you will inspect his outposts before drawing up your report for the War Department at Washington City.

All commanding officers of outposts will aid you in this matter to the best of their ability. The Gen desires me to give his respects to you.

I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. A. Garfield,
Brig. Gen. of Vols., Chief of Staff, and Asst. Adjt.Gen.


Headquarters. United States Forces,
Nashville, Tenn, June 5, 1863.

All officers in command of troops belonging to these forces will give every assistance in their power to Col. L. W. Auton, special inspector-general, under direct orders from the Secretary of War.

By Command of General Morgan:

Jno. Pratt.
Assistant Adjutant-General.

John P. Baird, Colonel of Volunteers, was more than satisfied; he handed the written papers back, and, it is presumed, apologized handsomely for demanding the papers of officers acting under the direct orders of the Secretary of War. He procured for them money—fifty dollars—gave them the corrected pass to Nashville, gave them the countersign, heartily wished them Godspeed on their journey, and watched them ride away into the night. It was quite dark now—a hint in the air already of the mist that was later to envelop Franklin in its dank gray mantle; they were swallowed up in the darkness almost instantly; it seemed that the darkness blotted out the very sound of the hoof-falls of the horses. And then Colonel Baird thought for the first time of forgery! He was alone there in front of his tent—no one can ever know, only guess at—the shock of the thought that, in spite of the convincing papers, the men might be the destructive wedge of the Confederate army. Imagine his position—the anguish of indecision as vital second followed second and still he could not decide. The men, if Federal officers, were officers of importance who could not be lightly ordered back, virtually under arrest; he had seen the papers once—he had no grounds for calling them back to see them again. He must have grown more confused—there in the dark with no one to see. Perhaps he was an imaginative man; perhaps he saw the men at that very moment presenting his pass to the advance pickets out there at Spencer’s Creek on the Nashville pike; saw the pickets salute, and the men ride on — where? There must have been always that subconscious thought. “How far have they got by now?” And still he had not decided what to do.

W. S. RosecransColonel Louis D. Watkins, colonel of the Sixth Kentucky Cavalry, must have been surprised at the greeting from his superior officer, as he approached headquarters just then Colonel Watkins was an officer of the “old” army—a regular; Colonel Baird tensely told him the story, his own suspicions, Van Vleck’s outspoken charge, then thrust upon him the question. Colonel Watkins was very grave; some things looked very wrong, he said. Colonel Baird’s indecision passed: the men must be brought back, their papers re-examined; tell them there are despatches to be sent to Nashville, tell them anything—bring them back, Watkins! he cried. Colonel Watkins was already mounting; with his orderly he galloped away. Colonel Van Vleck’s letter tells that Colonel Baird “came immediately to see me, and was much excited, and asked me again if I thought they were spies. I replied that I did, and he jumped on his horse and followed Colonel Watkins.”

Many of the newspapers of that day—very brown and fragile they are, in texture and in truth!—tell lurid tales of the pursuers and the pursued riding “with lightning speed” through the black night; of the “plan that was laid for the orderly to unsling his carbine, and if, when he (the Colonel) halted them, they showed any suspicious motions, to fire on them without waiting for an order.” How Colonel Auton , when overtaken, “like Major Andre, for an instant lost his presence of mind. He laid his hand on his pistol!”

Colonel Watkins overtook the two riding leisurely along, before they had reached the outpost at Spencer’s Creek. They readily consented to return; if they were surprised that an officer of Colonel Watkins’ rank had been sent posting after them to carry such a message, they did not show their surprise. The cavalry camp was of course outside that of the infantry. At Colonel Watkins’ quarters he suggested that they wait until the despatches were brought to them —they had twenty miles to ride to Nashville, no use to ride clear to headquarters for the despatches—more excuses probably equally poor. They thanked Colonel Watkins and entered his tent. Colonel Watkins rode on to consult with Colonel Baird. After a time, becoming impatient and restless, Colonel Auton went to the door of the tent and found that he and Major Dunlop were prisoners; the tent was surrounded by sentries who world not let him pass. Presently they were taken under guard to Headquarters and brought before Colonel Baird. It must have been a strange, unhappy meeting for them all, a meeting of which there is no record, one which can be pictured only in the mind. Colonel Auton and Major Dunlop, insulted, humiliated, flushed with anger at the indignity placed upon them; perhaps voluble and eloquent, threatening; more likely, dignified and coldly distant to the uneasy officers who faced them, challenging their word.

The papers were examined again, minutely. The form and phraseology of the papers were beyond cavil: there was shown to be a reason for new inspectors in the West; they had but just been relieved of duty in the East; the department commander apparently had accepted the detail, and had assigned them to duties which accorded with the spirit of the instructions from army headquarters. It was all very regular as far as logic and circumstance went.

The newspapers make much of the fact that the papers were not written on the regular form-paper used by the War Department; it seemed to make little impression on Colonels Baird and Watkins, who were as much in doubt as before; Colonel Baird doggedly held them as prisoners still. In his impatience and anxiety he himself climbed to the signal station back of Fort Granger, in order to receive at the first reading the reply to his message which he was about to send to Triune. The mist was fast thickening to fog; they stood in a blur of pale, dead, unwavering light; the signalman with his torch wigwagged the question, and then they waited in the heavy silence of the fog. The man at the telescope stared into a gray void, but presently he flung up his hand for silence and jerkily read off the message: Triune could not understand, but would send Lieutenant Wharton to investigate. Colonel Baird dictated another message; the signal officer looked anxiously at the fog; if Triune saw and answered, it could not be seen there on the fog-shrouded hilltop at Franklin. Colonel Baird went down to the fort again. Triune was nearly fifteen miles away, and Lieutenant Wharton could not arrive for several hours. There was nothing to do now but lay the matter before General Rosecrans at Murfreesborough; perhaps he had hoped that it would be unnecessary to report such an occurrence to his commanding officer; there was nothing else for it now. He sent the following telegram, the first of that singular series of messages sent and received that night:

Franklin, June 8. 1863.

Brigadier-General Garfield, Chief of Staff:

Is there any such inspector-general as Lawrence Orton, colonel U. S. Army, and assistant, Major Dunlop? If so, please de scribe their personal appearance, and answer immediately.

J. P. BAIRD, Colonel, Commanding Post.

There is no time given on this message —probably it was by then nine or nine-thirty. Ten o’clock, half past ten, eleven, and no answer to the question. It seems to have aroused little interest at Murfreesborough; it was grudgingly answered, and was delayed in getting on the wire.

Lieutenant Wharton of Triune had not yet arrived. It was an anxious interval. What took place during the wait? It is most likely that Colonel Auton or Orton—already there seems to have arisen a doubt as to which name was correct—and his assistant remained under guard at headquarters; it is probable that they were shown every courtesy except that of liberty during the long and anxious wait. When Colonel Baird could stand the suspense no longer he wired a detailed account of the case:

Franklin, June 8, 1863—11:30 P.M.

[Brigadier General Garfield:]

Two men came in camp about dark, dressed in our uniform, with horses and equipments to correspond, saying that they were Colonel Orton, inspector-general, and Major Dunlop, assistant, having an order from Adjutant-General Townsend and your order to inspect all posts, but their conduct was as singular that we have arrested them, and they insisted that it was important to go to Nashville to-night. The one representing himself as Colonel Orton is probably a regular officer of old army, but Colonel Watkins, commanding cavalry here, in whom I have the utmost confidence, is of opinion that they are spies, who have either forged or captured their orders. They can give no consistent account of their conduct. I want you to answer immediately my last dispatch. It takes so long to get an answer from General (Gordon) Granger at Triune, by signal, that I telegraphed General (R. S.) Granger, at Nashville, for information. I also signaled General Gordon

Granger. If these men are spies, it seems to me that it is important that I should know it, because Forrest must be awaiting their progress.

I am, General, your obedient servant,

J. P. Baird, Colonel, Commanding Post.

louis d watkinsWithin fifteen minutes there came the answer to the first despatch, and either just preceding it or just following it, Lieutenant Wharton of Triune. It must have been a dramatic moment when the prisoners rose to face him. He looked at them steadily; no one spoke or moved for a very long time. They had not been at Triune that afternoon, nor ever, he said. He examined the papers one by one, and one by one pronounced them beyond all doubt forgeries. Why he could do so so positively I do not know. The telegram was scarce needed, but it, too. dragged them down:

Headquarters Department of the Cumberland.
Murfreesborough, June 8, —10:15 p.m.

Colonel J. P. Baird, Franklin:

There are no such men as Insp. Gen. Lawrence Orton, Colonel U.S. Army, and assistant Major Dunlop, in this army, nor in any army, no far as we know. Why do you ask?

J. A. Garfield,
Brigadier-General & Chief of Staff.

There is a note of irritation, a phrase of ridicule in the message, as of a man who answers the inconsequential questionings of a child; “nor in any army”! —a very different message from the terse, sharp—almost savage—military order which was to follow it.

There is something almost boyish about Colonel Baird, particularly in the massage which he rushed to send. It is a voluble, jubilant composition, a little triumphant at his vindication (perhaps he had felt the sting in the tone of the despatch from Murfreesborough). Perhaps it is just the effect of the reaction that came when he found that he had not made a serious mistake, but instead had made an important capture. He had not yet begun to consider the men, nor what he would be called upon to do. Unless the date is in error, the message must have been sent before midnight—showing that events had moved swiftly there at Headquarters tent.

Franklin, June 8, 1863.
Gen. Garfield, Chief of Staff:

I had just sent you an explanation of my first dispatch when I received your dispatch. When your dispatch came, they owned up as being a rebel colonel and lieutenant in rebel army. Colonel Orton, by name, but in fact Williams, first on General Scott’s staff, of Second Cavalry, Regular Army. Their ruse was nearly successful on me, as I did not know the handwriting of my commanding officer, and am much indebted to Colonel Watkins, Sixth Kentucky Cavalry, for their detention, and Lieut. Wharton, of Granger’s staff, for the detection of forgery of papers. As these men don’t deny their guilt, what shall I do with them? My bile is stirred, and some hanging would do me good. I communicate with you, because I can get an answer so much sooner than by signal, but I will keep General Granger posted. I will telegraph you again in a short time, as we are trying to find out, and believe there is an attack contemplated in the morning, If Watkins gets anything out of Orton I will let you know.

I am, General, your obedient servant,

J. P. Baird, Colonel, Commanding.

The telegram (in answer to his second message) that was handed him almost immediately after he had penned this remarkable despatch, must have come like a dash of icy water in the face—so stern and harsh it is, so insistent upon such brutal haste:


June 8. —12:00 P.M.

Colonel J. P. Baird, Franklin:

The two men are no doubt spies. Call a drumhead court martial to-night and if they are found to be spies, hang them before morning, without fail. No such men have been accredited from these headquarters.

J. A. Garfield,
Brigadier-General & Chief of Staff.

Thomas Jefferson JordanIt must have been after the sending of Colonel Baird’s last despatch that the search of the persons of the two Confederate officers was made—else the evidence discovered would have been contained in the message. There was found on their hatbands, concealed by the havelocks, their names and their rank in the Confederate army. On one sword was etched, “Lieutenant Walter G. Peter, C.S.A.,” and of the other, Williams, Colonel Van Vleck writes: “He had a fine sword with a presentation inscription on it, which gave his name, if I remember rightly, as ‘Colonel L. O. Williams.’ It was from some Confederate general, but I forget who. He had also $1.500, Confederate money, or thereabouts, a silver cup, and quite a number of small trinkets. Whether there was a watch I cannot now remember.” Were men ever so overwhelmed by the weight of evidence?

Of the hours that passed from midnight to three o’clock there is nowhere an account. It was the twilight that preceded the fall of utter darkness; a period to the excitement that had just passed; harder even than the short hours which were to follow, when uncertainty was at an end.

They were cousins, these two—playmates as children, comrades in their young manhood; Colonel Williams would be twenty-five within the month, Lieutenant Peter was but twenty-one. The one had led always, the other had gladly always followed, followed with boyish admiration that was scarce less than hero worship. Those who knew them all their short young lives tell today of the devotion of Lieutenant Peter to his brilliant, accomplished, fearless cousin, Orton. It is true beyond all doubt that Lieutenant Peter had not known the purpose, the real mission, on which he and Colonel Williams had entered the Federal lines; it is probable that he never knew. Orton had led, and he had followed.

This is no time for imaginative writing—of what their thoughts must have been; of what they may have said or done. They were left alone, undisturbed by the Federal officers; they are to be left alone now.

Orderlies hurried through the sleeping camp, stopping here and there to rouse some listed officer: ” The Colonel orders, sir. that you assemble at once at Headquarters for drumhead court.” . . . ” The Colonel orders, sir, that you assemble at once at Headquarters for drumhead court.” the order was monotonously repeated here and there. The swiftest and most terrible of all courts of law, the midnight drumhead court martial, convened. Officers greeted one another with voices unconsciously lowered; the chairs as they were drawn up to the table made a great scraping on the bare board floor. One of the lamps went out, and an orderly placed a row of lighted candles along the edge of the long table; the row of tiny flames threw bizarre, wavering shadows on faces and walls, threw garish shimmers of light on side-arms and brass buttons; burned with the solemnity of waxen tapers on an altar of sacrifice; then flickered and danced again.

The prisoners were brought in. The trial began; the trial of spies who had made no attempt to gain information, who had no drawings of fortifications, who had naught to condemn them but an intention that was never known.

In the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XXIII, Part II, pages 424, 425, thus stands the record of their trial:


Record of the Military Commission.

Headquarters Post,
Franklin, June 9, 1863.

Before a Court of Commission assembled by virtue of the following order:

Headquarters Post Of Franklin,
June 9 – 3 a. m.

A Course of Commission is hereby called, in pursuance of order from Major-General Rosecrans, to try Colonel Williams and Lieutenant Peter of rebel forces, on charge of being spies, the court to sit immediately, at headquarters of the post.

Detail for Court.- Colonel Jordan, Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry, president; Lieutenant-Colonel Van Vleck, Seventy-eighth Illinois Infantry; Lieutenant-Colonel Hoblitzel, Fifth Kentucky Cavalry; Captain Crawford, Eighty-fifth Indiana Infantry, and Lieutenant Wharton, judge-advocate.

By order of J. P. Baird, colonel, commanding post.


The court and judge-advocate having been duly sworn according to military law, the prisoners were arraigned upon the following charges:


Charges and Specifications against Colonel Lawrence Auton, alias Williams, and Lieutenant Walter G. Peter, officers in rebel forces.

Charges. – Being spies.

Specifications. – In this, that said Colonel Lawrence Auton, alias Williams, and Lieutenant Walter G. Peter, officer in the so-called Confederate States of America, did, on the 8th day of June, 1863, come inside the lines of the Army of the United States, at Franklin, Tenn., wearing the uniform of Federal officers, with a pass purporting to be signed by Major-General Rosecrans, commanding Department of the Cumberland, and represented to Colonel J. P. Baird, commanding post of Franklin, that they were in the service of the United States; all this for the purpose of getting information of the strength of the United States forces and convening it to the enemies of the United States now in arms against the United States Government.

E. C. Davis,
Captain Company G, Eighth-fifth Indiana infantry.

Some evidence having been heard in support of the charge and specifications, the prisoners made the following statement:

That they came inside of the lines of the United States Army, at Franklin, Tenn., about dark on the June, 1863, wearing the uniform they then had on their persons, which was that of Federal officers; that they went to the headquarters of Colonel J. P. Baird, commanding forces at Franklin, and represented to him that they were Colonel Auton, inspector, just sent from Washington City to overlook the inspection of the several departments of the West, and Major Dunlop, his assistant, and exhibited to him an order from Adjutant-General Townsend assigning him to that duty, an order from Major-General Rosecrans, countersigned by Brigadier-General Garfield, chief of staff, asking him to inspect his outposts, and a pass through all lines from General Rosecrans; that he told Colonel Baird he had missed the road from Murfreesborough to this point, got too near Eagleville, and run into rebel pickets, had his orderly shot, and lost his coat containing his money; that he wanted some money and a pass to Nashville; that, when arrested by Colonel Watkins, Sixth Kentucky Cavalry, after examination they admitted that they were in the rebel army, and that his (the colonel’s) true name was Lawrence Orton Williams; (His name in the United States service was William Orton Williams; but see p. 804.) that he had been in the Second Regular Cavalry, Army of the United States, once on General Scott’s staff in Mexico, and was now a colonel in the rebel army, and Lieutenant Peter was his adjutant; that he came in our lines knowing his fate, if taken, but asking mercy for his adjutant.

The court having maturely considered the case, after hearing all the evidence, together with the statements of the prisoners, do find them, viz, Colonel Lawrence Auton Williams and Lieutenant [Walter G.] Peter, officers of the Confederate Army, guilty of the charge of being spies found within the lines of the United States Army at Franklin, Ten., on the 8th day of June, 1863.

Thos. J. Jordan,
Colonel Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry,
President of the Commission.

Henry C. Wharton,
Lieutenant of Engineers, Judge-Advocate.

The trial ended. Thus it stands on the record.

The Midnight Court Martial

(above) The Midnight Court Martial
Painting by Howard Pyle

In the oft-quoted letter to Colonel Williams’ sister, Col. Carter Van Vleck, member of the court, writes:

The court was called together and your brother freely confessed all except as to the object of his mission, which to this day is a most mysterious secret to us all. In course of a conversation with Colonel Watkins your brother said to him, “Why, Watkins, you know me. We served in the same regiment of the United States Army. I am he that was Lieutenant Williams.” Watkins at once recognized him.

In his remarks to the court your brother said that he had undertaken the enterprise with his eyes open and knew what his fate must be if he was discovered, but said that the value of the prize at which he grasped fully justified the fearful hazard he had made to gain it, and acknowledged the entire justice of his sentence, and said that he had no complaint whatever to make. He at no time denied being a spy, but only denied that he had designs against Franklin. I believe that he said the truth; he had a greater prize in view. He asked for mercy for Lieut. Peter on account of his youth and because he was ignorant of the objects or dangers of the mission, but said that he had no right to ask for mercy for himself, as he knew what his fate must be if convicted, before he entered upon his mission. . . . Your brother did say that he intended to have gone to Europe immediately if he had been successful in his undertaking.

The trial had lasted scarce en hour; when it was at an end Colonel Baird sent another telegram to his commanding officer—a very different message from the thoughtless, exultant one, with its flippant, “a little hanging would do me good”—which had just preceded it:

Franklin, June 9, 1863.

Gen. Garfield, Chief of Staff:

Colonel Watkins says Colonel Williams is a first cousin of General Robert E. Lee, and he says so. He has been chief of artillery on Bragg’s staff.

We are consulting. Must I hang him? If you can direct me to send him somewhere else, I would like it; but, if not, or I do not hear from you, they will be executed. This dispatch is written at the request of Colonel Watkins, who detained the prisoners. We are prepared for a fight.

J. P. Baird, Colonel, Commanding.

Within the hour there came back the relentless decree:

Headquarters Department of the Cumberland.
Murfreesborough, June 8, 1863.—4 :40 A.M.

Col. J. P. Baird, Franklin:

The general commanding directs that the two spies, if found guilty, be hung at once, thus placing it beyond the possibility of Forrest’s profiting by the information they have gained.

Frank S. Bond,
Major and Aide-de-camp.

In the face of such an order Colonel Baird could only bow his head. Day was dawning. Loud, clear bugles shrilled the reveille from all quarters of the camp; thin blue spirals rose above rekindled embers; men, fresh from their night’s rest, streamed out of tent and hut, and stretched and shook themselves and began the old life anew under the brightening sky. They made the camp hum and buzz with shouted jests and greetings and the rough, loud banterings of soldiers. Then grim Rumor rose like a carrion bird and flapped heavily from group to group, and where Rumor had paused in its passing, men’s voices grew less loud, and they turned and stared often at headquarters with curiousness and vague trouble in their eyes. Colonel Baird sat haggard and listless at his table, waiting. Presently an orderly, followed by the chaplain, appeared. He was the Rev. Robert Taylor, chaplain of the Seventy-eighth Illinois, and he too has written to the sister of Colonel Williams—kindly, gentle letters they are, full of whatever grains of comfort there might be. He tells how he was awakened at dawn and ordered to report immediately to headquarters, and how he learned there for the first time what had happened while he slept. They had asked for him, Colonel Baird said.

It must have been that Colonel Williams and Lieutenant Peter had been taken away when their examination was at an end, and had not been brought in again after the deliberations of the court, for Chaplain Taylor in a letter writes:

Colonel Baird went with me, introduced me, and announced to them their sentence. They received the announcement with sadness but with great dignity and composure. When the sentence had been announced to them your brother asked Colonel B. whether or not this sentence would be read to them in due form as the sentence of a court martial, and I think he added. “The charge of being spies we deny.”

To his sister, Colonel Williams began his letter: “Do not believe that I am a spy; with my dying breath I deny the charge.”

The rest of the letter is made up of hurried messages to family and friends—concise statements of minor business matters; no sighings, no complaints against Fate. It is but a note, written on one side of a small sheet, inscribed in a firm, unfaltering hand. There was a letter to General Bragg, of which I have seen not even a copy, but it, too, could have been but a note of farewell; all the letters, of necessity, had to be carefully read before sending through the lines. The last letter, of which the copy is in a woman’s hand, was written to the lady who had promised to be his wife. History has but the right to these words:

When this reaches you I will be no more. Had I succeeded I would have been able to marry you in Europe in a month. The fate of war has decided against us. I have been condemned as a spy—you know I am not.

They asked if they might write a few letters, and when paper and pens were brought, Chaplain Taylor and Colonel Baird withdrew for a short time.

When the brief letters were finished they asked for Colonel Baird again, and when he had come, Colonel Williams asked if he might send a telegram to General Rosecrans, who had long ago known his father. Baird eagerly clutched at the straw of hope, and together they wrote the message:

Franklin, June 9, 1863.

General Garfield, Chief of Staff:

Will you not have any clemency for the son of Captain Williams, who fell at Monterey, Mexico? As my dying speech, I protest our innocence as spies. Save also my friend.

Lawrence W. Orton (formerly W. Orton Williams).

I send this as a dying request. The men are condemned, and we are preparing for execution. They also prefer to be shot. If you can answer before I get ready, do.

J. P. Baird.

No answer ever came.

In the United Service Magazine of twenty years ago, Col. William F. Prosser writes of General Rosecrans in relation to this unanswered telegram:

Being a man of tender and sympathetic feeling, he was somewhat apprehensive that his judgment might be overcome by appeals for mercy; therefore when he retired to his sleeping apartment, between three and four o’clock in the morning he gave positive instructions to General Garfield to have his former orders carried out promptly, with directions at the same time not to bring him any more telegrams, dispatches, or appeals of any kind whatever on the subject.

Pilate had washed his hands.

Hours passed, restless, anxious hours for Colonel Baird; hoping against hope, he yet waited for an answer to his message. When at last he gave up, he already risked a severe reprimand; his mercy and pity could do no more. He gave the order for the execution, and the order was obeyed.

In the forty-six years that have passed since that June morning, there have appeared a score of times in newspaper columns the letters of officers and men who that day were formed in hollow square down by the Harpeth River, and who stood stern and silent till the work was done. In all these accounts there is not one but has (crudely expressed at times) its note of respect and admiration and pity. But of them all, I turn once again to the yellowed leaves of Col. Carter Van Vleck’s letter, and copy his words:

walter g peter and william orton williamsYour brother died with the courage of a true hero. He stepped upon the scaffold with as much composure as though he had gone there to address the multitude. There was no faltering in his step, no tremor in his nerves. He thanked the officers for his kind treatment, and said that he had no complaint to make; that one of the cruel fates of war had befallen him, and he would submit to it like a man. On the scaffold the unfortunate men embraced each other and Lieutenant Peter sobbed and said: “Oh Colonel, have we come to this!” Your brother at once checked him by saying, “Let us die like men.” And they did die like men, with the heartfelt sympathy of every man who saw them die.


Franklin, June 9, 1861.

General Garfield, Chief of Staff:

The men have been tried, found guilty and executed, in compliance with your order. There is no appearance of enemy yet.

I am, ever your obedient servant,

J. P. Baird, Colonel, Commanding Post.

In the afternoon, when he had somewhat regained his composure, Colonel Baird sent the last despatch of this strange series; a message which, had it been sent before, and which, had it been heeded, might have given time for the solving of a mystery which will now never be solved:

Franklin, June 9, 1863.

Brigadier-General Garfield:

Dispatch received of rebel account of fight. No truth in it. The officers I executed this morning, in my opinion, were not ordinary spies, and had some mission more important than finding out my situation. They came near dark, asked no questions about forces, and did not attempt to inspect works, and, after they confessed, insisted they were not spies, in the ordinary sense, and that they wanted no information about this place. Said they were going to Canada and something about Europe; not clear. We found on them memorandum of commanding officers and their assistant adjutant-generals in Northern States. Though they admitted the justice of the sentence and died like soldiers, they would not disclose their true object. Their conduct was very singular indeed; I can make nothing of it.

I am, General,

J. P. Baird, Colonel, Commanding.

There seems to have been no one who ever believed these young officers to have been common spies. In his weekly letters to the New York Herald, Mr. W. F. G. Shanks, war correspondent in the field with the Army of the Cumberland, writes:

They did not explain upon what grounds they made the plea of not being spies under these circumstances. It is to be regretted that they did not, as it might have explained their reason for coming into our lines. No such unimportant matter as a proposed attack on Franklin could have induced two officers of their rank and character to undertake so hazardous an enterprise.

No plausible reasons have been given explaining the expedition upon which these men were engaged; probably will never be explained. Were not anxious in regard to works and troops at Franklin. . . . Some have imagined that their mission was one to the copperheads of the North. . . . These are the first rebel officers hung during the war. The case will form a precedent. Col. Baird regrets that the trial was not more deliberate, but the Government has approved and sustained the action. The President has telegraphed to General Rosecrans his approval of the prompt action.

This same correspondent tells of the sending from Murfreesborough of the effects of Colonel Williams and Lieutenant Peter to the Confederate lines. The flag of truce was halted eight miles out by the videttes of the Fifty-first Alabama Mounted Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Webb commanding.

In the course of informal conversation one of the Confederate officers said that he was sorry for Orton, but he had played the spy, and had been bung according to military law. Colonel Webb curtly corrected him, and said that nothing of the sort was admitted. He abruptly closed the conversation. It seems useless to consider Franklin as aught but a stopping-stone on which they tripped and fell.

There are three statements in this article which must be corrected here. Lawrence Orton Williams was not his name; why he changed it from William Orton Williams is another mystery which will never be revealed; it was a change which has puzzled and distressed relatives and friends to this day. Only four of the many letters he wrote his sister during the war ever got through the lines. In one of them, the letter of December 19, 1862, he makes this single unexplained allusion to the change. He closes:. . . “your affectionate brother (I have changed my name), Lawrence Williams Orton.”

Above all, that be should have taken the given name of his elder brother, serving as major in the Federal army, caused endless confusion in newspapers, North and South. There is an unconfirmed story of an incident which may have been the cause of this change of name. While serving under Bishop-General Polk, shortly before Shiloh, Colonel Williams with his strict ideas of military discipline—new and distasteful to volunteer soldiers—became involved with a private, and the result was the death of the soldier, whether for sleeping on post, desertion, or what, it cannot be found. This affair made Colonel Williams so unpopular with the soldiers that in spite of his gallantry at Shiloh—for which he was twice mentioned in general orders—he was transferred to the staff of General Bragg. Perhaps it was then that he changed his name. That it had not been changed until then is evidenced by his sword. In the Confederate correspondence published in the Official Records is the report of Col. J. J. Neely, of Forrest’s cavalry—June 29, 1864: “A sabre was captured [La Fayette, Georgia] by Captain Deberry . . . bearing the inscription: ‘W. Orton Williams, C.S.A., Chief of Artillery, Shiloh, April 6, 1862.'” How came this sword with the Federals? It was not the sword that he wore at Franklin, and which he is said to have presented to Colonel Watkins—Colonel Van Vleck would never have forgotten such an inscription as that. His very sword had its mystery.

Colonel Williams was not a first cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee, but of General Lee’s wife, who was of the Custis family —a direct descendant of Martha Washington.

Nor was Colonel Williams on General Scott’s staff in Mexico. His father fell at the head of his column at Monterey; the son was on the staff of General Scott, commander-in-chief of the army, in Washington in 1861. Because of his continued visits to Arlington—where his sister made her home—after Gen. Robert E. Lee had joined the Confederacy, he was sent to Governors Island, New York, and kept there until any information he might have had to aid the Confederacy was rendered useless by time. June 10, 1861, he resigned, to swing his sword for the South, and to die at Franklin, Tennessee, as a spy.

What was his mission? He had failed; why did he not dignify his act by giving it the importance it deserved? Orton Williams’ bravery was more than physical —he was willing to do more than die for his Cause; he was willing to live through the pages that men call History as a spy rather than block the pathway of the man, and the man, and the man after that one, if need be, who he knew would follow him. Who knew his mission? Not his companion; not Gen. Joe Wheeler, on whose staff he had been but two months; not even General Bragg, to whom he wrote farewell. Not, if the press of that day may be believed. The daily Richmond Examiner of July 3, 1863, in commenting bitterly on the case, says:

None of our commanders in Tennessee are aware of any such mission being undertaken by these officers, which could only have been at the suggestion of a superior officer, or certainly with some knowledge on his part of the object of such an enterprise within the enemy’s lines.

The Chattanooga Rebel of June 17, 1863:

Lawrence Orton Williams was one of the most honorable officers in this service. . . . The expedition that ended so tragically was undertaken on his own account and was unknown to his brother officers.

To judge by the following letter, Colonel Williams was known to Judah P. Benjamin, then Secretary of War of the Confederacy, of whose letter, found among the Confederate Correspondence, this is a part:

Sir: I have received your several communications from Capt. Williams, and he has been detained a day or two to enable us to obtain such information of the late engagement at Fort Donelson and the movement of our troops as would authorize a definite decision as to our future movements. (To General Polk at Columbus, Ky. Feb. 20, ’62.)

Thirty-four years later there came to light, among a dead man’s private letters, another letter of Secretary Benjamin’s (Secretary now of State), a letter written but three weeks after Colonel Williams died at Franklin, of which this is a part and substance (published in the Richmond Times of July 16, 1896, republished in the Papers of the Southern Historical Society, Vol. XXIV):

Department of State, Richmond, Jury 8,1863.

[To Lieutenant J. L. Capston.]


You have, in accordance with your proposal made to this department, been detailed by the Secretary of War for special service under my orders. The duty which is proposed to entrust to you is that of a private and confidential agent of this government, for the purpose of proceeding to Ireland, and there using all legitimate means to enlighten the population as to the true nature and character of the contest now waged in this continent, with the view of defeating the attempts made by the agents of the United States to obtain in Ireland recruits for their army. It is understood that under the guise of assisting needy persons to emigrate, a regular organization has been formed of agents in Ireland who leave untried no methods of deceiving the laboring population into emigrating for the ostensible purpose of seeking employment in the United States but really for recruiting in the Federal armies. . . . Throw yourself as much as possible into close communication with the people where the agents of our enemies are at work. Inform them by every means you can devise, of the true purpose of those who seek to induce them to emigrate. Explain to them the nature of the warfare which is carried on here. Picture to them the fate of their unhappy countrymen, who have already fallen victims to the arts of the Federals. Relate to them the story of Meagher’s Brigade, its formation and its fate. Explain to them that they will be called on to meet Irishmen in battle, and thus to imbrue their hands in the blood of their own friends, and perhaps kinsmen, in a quarrel which does not concern them, and in which all the feelings of a common humanity should induce them to refuse taking part against us. Contrast the policy of the Federal and Confederate states. . . .

In this war such has been the hatred of the New England Puritans to Irishmen and Catholics, that in several instances the chapels and places of worship of the Irish Catholics have been burnt or shamefully desecrated by the regiments of volunteers from New England. These facts have been published in Northern papers, take the New York Freeman’s Journal, and you will see shocking details, not coming from Confederate sources, but from the officers of the United States themselves.

Lay all these matters fully before the people who are now called on to join these ferocious persecuters in the destruction of this nation. . . .

I am, sir, respectfully,

                                                            Your obedient servant,

(signed) J. P. Benjamin,
Secretary of State.

Colonel Williams may not have been Lieutenant Capston’s predecessor, but who knows but that he too had had a personal letter—which was not a War Department order—from Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy?

Colonel Williams went to Franklin, Tennessee, where he was hanged. I believe that that is all which we shall ever know.


Note: The images in this post are basically the same as those in the Harper’s article, though better versions were located online.  One exception is that the article did not have a picture of Col. Williams or Lt. Peter.


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