News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 21, 2013

Historical perspective: The haunting of Civil War Col. John P. Baird

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — On a warm June evening 150 years ago, Col. John Pearson Baird of the 85th Indiana Regiment was relaxing in his tent at Fort Granger, near Franklin, Tenn.

Four days earlier — on June 4, 1863 — Union troops under his command had  rebuffed a vicious assault by a Confederate cavalry under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Col. Baird, an esteemed Terre Haute trial lawyer turned commander, assumed that Forrest’s horsemen were still lurking nearby and he shared his thoughts with Lt. Col. John D. Van Vleck of the 78th Illinois Infantry

Two uniformed strangers on horseback interrupted the conversation.

The senior officer introduced himself as “Col. Lawrence W. Auton, acting inspector general” of the Army of the Potomac. His younger associate said he was “Major George Dunlop, assistant inspector of the Western troops.”

The strangers painstakingly described how they had been ambushed by pickets while en route from Murfreesboro to Triune under a special War Department order to inspect all armies stationed in Tennessee. The attackers had killed an orderly accompanying them and stole Auton’s coat, which contained money.

The men produced the War Department order dated May 25, 1863 and a pass from Gen. William S. Rosencrans countersigned by Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield, chief of staff. Both documents appeared impeccable.

Col. Baird offered the visitors cigars and whiskey and gathered $50 in donations from other officers. The two men politely declined an invitation to spend the night.

Soon after the guests departed, Col. Van Vleck and Capt. William T. Crawford questioned Auton’s “inspection story.” Col. Louis D. Watkins of the 6th Kentucky Cavalry echoed his concern. Embarrassed, Col. Baird promptly dispatched Watkins and quartermaster George E. Farrington in pursuit of the pair.

Reaching the men less than a half mile from Fort Granger, Col. Watkins told them it was too dangerous for them to travel outside of Union lines and insisted that they return to the garrison until an escort could accompany them. Reluctantly, Auton and Dunlop returned to the camp, where they were suddenly placed under heavy guard.

Meanwhile, Baird wired Gen. Garfield, inquiring if there was  an inspector general in the U.S. Army named Col. Lawrence Orton (sic) or an assistant named Dunlop.

Baird did not get a reply from Garfield until after midnight. It read:

“There are no such men … in this army, nor in any army, so far as we know.”

Scrutiny divulged that Auton’s order was not on War Department stationery and that Dunlop’s sword was engraved “Lt. W.G. Peter, C.S.A.” Both were wearing  Confederate caps covered by white flannel havelock.

“Col. Auton” turned out to be Lt. Col. William Orton Williams, a Confederate officer, while “Maj. Dunlop” was Lt. Walter Gibson Peter, known as “Gip.” Baird provided Garfield with his findings and added: “Some hanging would do me good.”

It was a statement he would later regret. Gen. Garfield responded:

“The two men are no doubt spies. Call a drum-head court-martial tonight, and if they are found to be spies, hang them in the morning without fail.”

The hour-long court martial convened at 3 a.m., June 9. Farrington, the native son of Terre Haute’s James Farrington, was the court reporter. Though insisting that they were not spies, only pranksters, the prisoners were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Baird ascertained that Williams attended West Point and served in the regular U.S. Army before Fort Sumter. He also learned that Col. Williams’ father died in 1846 of battlefield wounds received at Monterey during the Mexican War. Embarrassed that he did not recognize him earlier, Watkins recalled a warm friendship with Williams.

“Colonel,” Watkins said in a whisper, “I think Williams is Robert E. Lee’s cousin!”

Baird sent another wire to Garfield, reciting Watkins’ belief and inquiring, “Must I hang him? If you can direct me to send him somewhere else, I would like it …”

By wire, Williams also beseeched Garfield to spare them: “Will you not have any clemency for the son of Capt. Williams, who fell at Monterey, Mexico? As my dying speech, I protest our innocence as spies. Save also my friend.”  The response from Gen. Rosencrans, received at 4:40 a.m., was negative: “The general commanding directs that the two spies, if found guilty, be hung at once …”

The chaplain of the 78th Illinois Regiment imparted the news to the condemned. While gallows were being constructed on a wild cherry tree and two poplar coffins were being fabricated, the prisoners were allowed to write letters to loved ones.

As it turned out, Williams was not Robert E. Lee’s cousin. However, his mother, America Peter Williams, was a first cousin of Mary Anne Custis, Gen. Lee’s wife. It also was discovered that Lt. Peter’s uncle, Thomas Peter, married Martha Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Martha (Custis) Washington.

At 9:20 a.m., June 9, guards escorted the prisoners to the scaffold. Capt. Julius Alexander, provost marshal, tied a clean handkerchief over each man’s face. Williams presented his sword to Capt. Watkins, his pre-war military friend, and urged Lt. Peter, his grief-stricken cousin, to “die like a man.”

Several hundred moist eyes of Union soldiers watched the two men embrace.

Requests by the prisoners not to tie their hands were granted. They were placed standing on a cart under a large limb bearing two nooses. The nooses were placed on their necks and, upon signal, the cart was drawn out from under them. Two minutes after the cart was moved, Lt. Peter ceased to struggle.

The knot placed on Col. Williams did not slip under his ear but caught on his chin. Slowly strangling, he grasped the rope with his unbound hands and slipped it under his ear. Upon releasing his grip, he dropped. He was pronounced dead 20 minutes later. At 10:30 a.m., Col. Baird notified Gen. Garfield by wire that the men had been “executed in compliance with your order.”

The precise mission of Williams and Peters was never determined but the hanging  of the two men, featured in a front page engraving of Harper’s Weekly, haunted Baird for the rest of his life. He died in the Indiana Hospital for the Insane on March 7, 1881.

Baird is interred at Terre Haute’s Woodlawn Cemetery.