All research and writing done by the author of this blog is his own copyrighted material. It may not be reproduced without permission of the author, except for small quotes amounting to no more than one hundred words.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

William J. Lawton, Union Spy

American Digger Magazine
Alabama Dept of Archives and History

     What does a carte-de-visite image in the Alabama Department of Archives and History have in common with an ID disc dug in Virginia? Both artifacts of the American Civil War, they represent someone with the same name. The man in the photo is identified as “Captain William J. Lawton, Union Spy.” There he sits, in smug self-confidence, cigar clamped between his teeth, wearing the uniform of a Confederate officer. He looks like a poker player, and a good one at that.  As for the ID disc, sometime during the war, someone identified as “Wm J. Lawton, General Stahel’s Cavalry Scout” lost it in Virginia. Further information about the man in the photo explains that he was killed in northern Georgia in April 1864 by a Confederate guerrilla named Calvin Jones Andrews. Did the two items once belong to the same man? To learn the answer, we have to look into the murky world of Civil War espionage and shifting loyalties.
      Calvin Jones Andrews joined a company called the “Lookout Rangers” in 1861. Commanded by Captain Allen Lea, a 49 year-old veteran of the Mexican War, the company was organized in Lea’s native DeKalb County, Alabama. Across the Georgia state line, not far from Chattanooga, Tennessee, the adjoining counties would become a hotbed of guerrilla activity later in the war. In November 1861, Lea’s company was mustered into the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry, which was ordered from Nashville to Camp Cheatham and later to the Chattanooga area. The regiment had a reputation for poor discipline and worse leadership, and it was disbanded around May 1862. Jones Andrews then enlisted in the 3rd Confederate Cavalry.
      At this point a red herring throws us off the trail of Lawton, temporarily, at least. By a very odd coincidence, a man named William J. Lawton also enlisted in the Lookout Rangers. No doubt the same man later enlisted in the 3rd Confederate Cavalry. However, this can’t be the man we are on the hunt for because he died of typhoid fever at Camp Douglas, Illinois, in 1863. Though our Lawton was rumored to have been a Confederate turncoat who saw that the Confederacy was doomed, to date, no proof of this has surfaced. To track down Lawton the spy, we have to follow his killer, Calvin Jones Andrews.
      Andrews was said to have been recovering from a leg wound and on furlough at the time he shot Lawton, but his records do not bear this out. They show that he was AWOL in December 1863, and listed as a deserter in January 1864. How he came to shoot Lawton is a very interesting story in its own right, and the story behind the story tells us who Lawton really was.
      Our first break is a cryptic reference in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. In late December 1863, a “scout, Lawton” is mentioned in a dispatch from the Chattanooga area. This scout was attached to the 4th Michigan Cavalry, and the date and area match up with when Andrews went AWOL. At this point something remarkable happened, something that helps uncover Lawton’s true identity. Scout Lawton had an encounter with a Captain W.H. Edwards of the 39th Georgia Infantry, who was bringing in stragglers. According to a newspaper account, Lawton agreed to ride with Edwards to Dalton, but they never made it that far. The story goes on to say that Lawton shot and killed Edwards somewhere along the way. According to his records, Edwards was killed on January 9, 1864, but no cause was given. The date does fit neatly with the December 1863 mention of the scout Lawton, cited in the Official Records. If this truly is our man, we can confirm that Lawton did his scouting in Confederate uniform, and Edwards mistook him for a genuine straggler.
       The trail doesn't end there, either. It becomes easier to follow, because Lawton filed several reports from Chattanooga. Mostly scribbled notes, these reports are on microfilm at NARA, and they contain an account of his shooting by Jones Andrews, as reported by Private John Vantye* of the 4th Michigan Cavalry. Lawton’s own reports begin on September 20, 1863, but contain nothing about Andrews, nor Captain Edwards.
      Before the fatal encounter, Andrews was still recovering from his leg wound and hiding out with relatives in Chatooga County, Georgia. He had even gone so far as to join up with a band of guerrillas known as Gatewood’s Raiders. These unsavory characters had a reputation for preying on both pro-Union as well as pro-Confederate families. They also had a reputation for murdering prisoners. Despite their bad reputation, they were known to cooperate with Wheeler’s Cavalry, especially the 6th Georgia. A lieutenant from this regiment had also been hiding out in the same area as Andrews, and both became the object of one of Lawton’s forays into northern Georgia.
      On March 31, 1864, Lawton and five men dressed in Confederate uniform set out from Chattanooga on a raid. Their object was to hunt down and capture or kill any Confederates they found. Lieutenant Joel Weathers of the 6th Georgia was known to be in the area, as was Jones Andrews. Lawton divided his force into two squads, one group going after Weathers, while Lawton led two men on the hunt for Andrews. They headed for the house of a family named Mahan. By some accounts, Mrs. Andrews was staying at that house. However, Vantye reported that it was Mrs. Mahan who stepped out onto the front porch to see what these men in Confederate uniform wanted. When they asked her if anyone was in the house, she told them no.
      Lawton, however, refused to accept this answer and asked her if he could come in and look around. The woman refused, but, undaunted, Lawton pushed her aside and strode into the house. It was the last thing he ever did. A single pistol shot rang out, hitting Lawton in the neck, dropping him dead. Perhaps limping as he went, Andrews headed for the door, firing three more shots at Vantye. He then back-tracked, escaping out the back door. While Andrews was making his getaway, Mrs. Mahan, perhaps with the help of Mrs. Andrews, buried Lawton’s body under the front porch steps, but not before Vantye recovered the Confederate officer’s uniform the slain scout had been wearing. On their ride back to Chattanooga, they had two run-ins with more Confederates, killing at least one, and wounding another. Vantye also reported that two prisoners they had earlier captured made their escape at the same time Andrews did.
      Now that we know the full story of Lawton’s death, the question still unanswered is “can the ID disc dug in Virginia be his?” We know General Stahel operated in the Shenandoah Valley. The disc sates that Lawton was Stahel’s cavalry scout, and we know that Lawton’s whereabouts until September 1863 are completely unknown. Stahel was a brigade commander under General John C. Fremont and fought against Stonewall Jackson at Cross Keys. That means Lawton had every opportunity to be in the Valley in 1862. This is where it gets interesting. An account of Lawton’s shooting death was published in the Nashville Daily Union on April 9, 1864. The article added that Lawton had been a Jessie Scout, coming to the Chattanooga area when General George Thomas took command of the Army of the Cumberland.
      What makes the fact that Lawton had been a Jessie Scout so intriguing is their reputation. Formed in St. Louis at the outset of the war, they were named after John C. Fremont’s wife, Jessie. Recall that General Stahel, for whom Lawton scouted, served as a brigade commander under Fremont, and Fremont had taken the formative Jessie Scouts under his wing. These daring souls regularly wore Confederate uniforms while carrying out their missions. Their founder was even alleged to have infiltrated Forts Henry and Donelson while the scouts were still operating in the Western Theater. At any rate, the Jessie Scouts were active in the area where Lawton’s ID disc was found, and that ought to prove that its owner was same man Jones Andrews killed.
      As for Calvin Jones Andrews, Confederate guerrilla, he escaped retribution. After the war, Gatewood’s Raiders headed for Texas. Andrews tagged along but never made it that far. He eventually settled in Arkansas, where he died in 1909.
      One of many ironies in this story is that the man who enlisted Andrews in the Lookout Rangers went over to the Union side. Major Allen Lea, then of the 19th Alabama Cavalry Battalion, claiming bad health, resigned his commission in January 1863 at Chattanooga. His records go on to state that he became a “deserter to the enemy.” In 1864, Lea joined an independent mounted regiment, the 1st Alabama-Tennessee Vidette Cavalry (US) as a private. Eventually promoted to 2nd lieutenant, Lea survived the war as well. He died in 1898 in his native Dekalb County, Alabama, just west of the counties of northern Georgia where all the mayhem had taken place. 
      In perhaps the final irony, William J. Lawton, the spy with the poker face who wore his enemy’s uniform, lies in an unmarked grave. The very point of wearing an ID disc was the same then as wearing a dog tag is today. It allows a fallen soldier’s remains to be identified, preventing his being buried in a grave marked “Unknown.” We have his picture and we have his dog tag, but to this day, nobody knows exactly where William J. Lawton is buried.

* So in all the reports, but most likely spelled VanTyl.

NB: Information provided the author about Calvin Jones Andrews by a direct descendant states that he did go with Gatewood's bunch on their way to Texas but became disturbed about some of their activities and turned back to Walker County, Georgia. In 1867 he joined a wagon train with other relatives bound for Arkansas. Andrews had heard rumors that he might be tried for war crimes, prompting his decision to leave. He was said to have carried a Navy Colt revolver with him for the rest of his life on the suspicion that he might some day be hunted down. His descendants are proud of his Confederate service to this day.  11/12/2016

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Marcellus Pointer Captured, Escapes (Dec. 28, 1863)

Major General Joseph "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler was the youngest, and perhaps shortest general in the Confederate army. Though the object of much criticism by modern writers, he was certainly no coward. Wheeler once held off ten times his number at the Duck River bridge at Shelbyville, Tennessee, in June 1863, because some of Forrest's staff officers told him their chief was cut off on the other side of the river. (When Forrest saw what kind of trouble Wheeler was in, he turned his cavalry around and found another way to cross.) Finally overrun and forced to leap his horse over over a fifteen foot embankment into the fast-moving river, Wheeler, Lieutenant Pointer and a few others escaped. He lost hundreds of men captured that day, and barely escaped with his life. Yet this incident is rarely noted by modern critics, one of whom leaves readers with the impression that the Federal attack blew through Wheeler's troopers in a matter of minutes.

Wheeler's critics mainly accuse him of being a loose disciplinarian whose judgement in both operational and tactical matters was sometimes less than sound. Even Wheeler's sympathetic biographer, J.P. Dyer, admitted that the cavalry commander was not suited to independent command. Yet he glosses over much of what happened during his treatment of the following episode, choosing instead to quote extensively from another Wheeler partisan, William Carey Dodson.

This most serious of lapses in Wheeler's judgement came in late December 1863, while operating his cavalry in East Tennessee, his HQ at Tunnel Hill. The Confederates had gotten word that a wagon train from Chattanooga, laden with supplies, would be crossing the Hiawassee River at Charleston, Tennessee, bound for Knoxville and Burnside's army. Wheeler shone best when operating close to the main army, rarely achieving the kind of spectacular results Nathan Bedford Forrest did while raiding behind enemy lines. The truth is, Wheeler was simply not good as an independent raider. The one great exception to this was his recent raid into the Sequatchie Valley in October 1863.

Since spending a few weeks in Lawrence County, Alabama, to recuperate from the raid, Wheeler had rejoined Bragg's army, only to do more hard fighting in East Tennessee. The constant skirmishing throughout November and December had worn Wheeler's troopers down, while the general had been wounded in the foot. The command was badly in need of a rest.

That was not to be. Commander of the Army of Tennessee, General Braxton Bragg, ordered Wheeler to pursue and cut off the wagon train, and the best place to accomplish that would be before it could cross the bridge at Charleston. If Wheeler could overtake the supply train in force before it reached Charleston, he would have it in the bag. His force consisted of Kelly's division of two brigades and a four-gun battery. They set out at dawn on the 27th, Wade's brigade in the lead, followed by Grigsby's, commanded by Colonel Griffith. A day's march in a torrential rainstorm found them at Cleveland, where they demanded the surrender of the Federal courier station, the 3rd Confederate Cavalry skirmishing with the defenders. This demonstration was designed to deceive the Federals as to Wheeler's intentions, but the garrison held, further delaying the Confederates. By the time Wheeler caught up with the wagons, sometime before 10am on the 28th, the bulk of them had already crossed the bridge. Both Northern and Southern newspapers, informed by Federal dispatches, reported that the feisty little cavalry commander had actually captured the train, but more likely, he simply overtook the last of the wagons before they could cross. John W. DuBose wrote that some of the wagons were captured, along with 20 guards, but were recaptured by the Federals.

Mud and rain having slowed the march to the bridge, along with the delay at Cleveland, Wheeler decided his artillery would be of no use under these conditions and left them limbered up and out of action. In all, he had about 1200 men, while the wagon train was believed to number about 150, weighed down with food, clothing and ammunition. Wheeler would have done well to let the prize go and turn his column around. What he didn't know was that there were some 5,000 infantry, under General Philip Sheridan, Granger's Corps, encamped on the opposite side. To attack across the bridge and into that kind of a reception would have been suicide, if the Federals came in from behind. The following account, confusing as it is, leads this writer to conclude that Wheeler placed his lines on the south bank of the river, either expecting not to be bothered, or confident he could hold off an attack. A look at current maps makes this account otherwise difficult to understand, unless the writer means "generally north," rather than "due north," taking into consideration that the river bend at Charleston bulges in a southeasterly direction.

These dispositions* were described by an actual eyewitness with the 1st Kentucky Battalion, a correspondent to  the Memphis Appeal  [Atlanta],  as follows. Colonel [William B.] Wade's brigade [Kelly's Division] was dismounted and posted on the right "...on the crest of a hill overlooking the town; the first, second and ninth Kentucky regiments held the centre, and were posted in a dense cedar brake on the slope of the hill and immediately upon the right of the railroad; the first Kentucky Battalion, Captain Kirkpatrick commanding, held the left of the line, on the north side of the railroad, with the advance line of skirmishers under the immediate charge of Captain J.A. Cooper, of Company D, and about six hundred yards from the right of the enemy's line; the second Kentucky Battalion, Capt Dortch was ordered, early in the day, to remain with the artillery, which it did, consequently did not participate in the affair. Before our lines was fairly established skirmishing had begun, and being kept up for more than an hour, principally at long range, resulted in but little loss to either side. The delay on the part of General Wheeler gave the enemy full time for preparation and ample opportunity to recross troops over the river from Calhoun, thus increasing his force to several thousand infantry and cavalry. The appearance of several regiments of infantry on both sides of the railroad showed but too plainly their intention to charge our position. We could distinctly, on the left of our line, hear the commands given by the enemy commander positioned across the railroad...[F]or a short time our lines remained firm, but when the Yankees raised the yell and charged, they broke and scattered in the wildest confusion..."

This confusion was caused when a detachment of the 4th Ohio Cavalry, under Colonel Eli Long, about 150 in number, charged in at a full gallop. It was shortly after this that Lieutenant Marcellus Pointer, of Holly Springs, Mississippi, was captured. Wheeler sent his young aide forward to order a body of men he believed were Confederates not to gallop their horses, but to walk them instead. As it turned out, these were the very Ohioans who were now charging into Wheeler's line. Dismounted Confederate skirmishers broke and ran, causing their horse-holders to skedaddle, leaving the routed men no escape. About 150 of these dismounted troopers were taken prisoner in the melee. Pointer rode right into this stampede, unable to stop it. Meanwhile, Colonel Long had his entire regiment, some 1200 strong, supported by the 20th Missouri Mounted Infantry, charging into Wheeler's left. Wade's Brigade charged them in an effort to stem the tide, but were repulsed.

Modern map of Charleston, Tennessee

Wheeler was now engaged both front and rear, with his whole command in danger of being routed. Sheridan's infantry had gone on the offensive, attacking the south side of the bridge in support of Colonel Long. Charging down on the unsuspecting Lieutenant Pointer came two Yankees, well out in front of the rest, demanding his surrender. Pointer, who had desperately attempted to rally Wheeler's fleeing troopers to no avail, now found himself about to be killed or captured. One foe pointed a pistol in his face, while the other held a saber high over his head, as if to slice it off at the neck. However, Pointer was a veteran combatant, having come to Wheeler's staff from a year's service in the 9th Mississippi Infantry, which had deployed to Pensacola even before Fort Sumter was fired on. The young lieutenant, who had earned his spurs at Perryville, along with a serious wound, had recently shot his way out of a trap at Maryville in November, a stunned Wheeler following close behind. Wheeler would ever say of Lieutenant Pointer that he was absolutely fearless.

Seeing Pointer about to be taken, Wheeler and the rest of his staff, with supports, rode hell-bent on stopping the Federal cavalry from doing any more damage. It was all Pointer needed. When his captors demanded he turn over his weapons, he agreed, raised a pistol, then shot the man brandishing the saber. Simultaneously, the man pointing a pistol returned fire, the bullet penetrating Pointer's overcoat. Pointer then made his escape, shot through the body, allowing Generals Wheeler and Kelly to make their escape as well. The fleeing Confederate officers quickly rode into some nearby woods, amid a hail of bullets and cries for them to halt. Wheeler was described by an eyewitness as fighting something of a delaying action as he retreated, perhaps to give cover fire to Pointer and Kelly.

A looming disaster was averted when Grigsby's Brigade, commanded by Colonel Jacob W. Griffith, father of D.W. Griffith, the silent film director, charged out and broke the Ohioans, scattering them. Griffith, who had been wounded in the backside during the Sequatchie Valley Raid, could not sit his horse. Doing something his son should later have immortalized in film, the colonel commandeered the buggy of a citizen and led the charge thus. Other episodes of personal bravery, aside from Pointer's, were noted on the field that day. Like so many outlaws in a James Gang raid gone bad, as Hollywood would film it, men rode into the melee to pick up fallen comrades and hoist them onto the backs of their horses, bringing them to safety.

By sunset, Wheeler's weary, muddy, rain-soaked troopers, led by Colonel Griffith, were making their way back to Tunnel Hill, eventually to be joined by Wheeler, Kelly and Pointer. They had nothing to show for the raid, which the "embedded" reporter from Atlanta described in some detail. His article, highly critical of Wheeler, was copied by the Richmond papers, while an eyewitness gave a glowing account of Pointer's escapade, which he sent to the Atlanta papers under the pen name "Vidi," translated "I saw."

The bulk of Wheeler's command did not participate in the fight at Charleston, which received very little if any, write-up in official reports. They were instead with General Martin, who fought a sharp engagement on the 29th with Federal infantry and cavalry. More information can be found about that action, known as Mossy Creek, than about the Charleston raid. In all, Wheeler's men covered 75 miles in a driving rain, were unable to deploy their artillery, while much of their ammunition was rain-soaked and useless. The Atlanta journalist sharply criticized Wheeler's decision to stand and fight at the Hiawassee bridge as evincing "the least military skill and judgement." While Wheeler's troopers had performed brilliantly in the Sequatchie Valley, Bragg's giving them no time to recuperate from the subsequent campaigning in East Tennessee was a major factor in their being routed, to say nothing of their commander's poor judgement.

Pointer's wound was apparently serious enough to get him a thirty-day leave. He would not be heard from again until again until April 1864.

Confederate Order of Battle: (as reported by J.F. A. to the Memphis Appeal )

Kelly's Division

    Grigsby's Brigade ( commanded by Col. Griffith)

             1st Ky Cav
             2nd Ky Cav
             9th Ky Cav
             1st Ky Bn (Kirkpatrick)
             2nd Ky Bn

   Wade's Brigade

              1st Confed
              3rd Confed
              10th Confed
              4th Ala Cav

Huwald's Battery, 4  12 lb mountain howitzers

* Whether J.F.A. was a reporter or a member of the 1st Ky Bttn is not known. Also, research has failed to discover a Union order of battle for this action. From 5000-7000 men of Granger's Corps were in support of the wagon train, both en route and at Charleston. Detachments of the 59th Ohio Inf participated.
Col. Long's 4th Ohio Cav and the 20th Mo Mounted Infantry bore the brunt of the fight.