• The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.



White House Dec 1st 1861


I have been hoping, dear Orton,1 ever since I sent my last long letter written the 27th of Sept from Cleydael, to have a response in due time. But “hope told a flattering tale” this time sure enough. I have been tempted to believe you have forgotten your old Virginia friends generally & ma in particular, but ashamed of this skepticism in regard to “our brave defenders” I am going to do what I rarely ever do— write again, thinking it probable the postmaster, now knowing how very important my epistles are, actually failed to have that one delivered to you.

You must not think my writing indicates the frequency of my thoughts we all at Cleydael discussed you often. We had such a pleasant visit, in sight of the ennemy [sic] & were there during various landings of the Federals particularly the ones when cousin Patsy Stuart lost everything. But Cleydael five miles from the river was perfectly safe, indeed Cedar Grove is still untouched the girls told me to send you much love when I wrote. Ella Calvert now Mrs. Calvert told us Mrs. McLean had told you. I wish I had [letter faded] it for we spent several days in Richmond passing through & saw her a moment, so we might have asked her also about you O[rton] I was so sorry to hear of Edward Butler’s death. We saw him so lively at Ravensworth this Spring. Were you with him? You were not in the battle, how was that? In fact Orton I know nothing about you & am writing in perfect mental darkness. Won’t you enlighten me? Custis said he had heard from you that you want to come to Va but you know men never know anything. I wish indeed you could come though Kentucky seems to be becoming the theatre now of all stirring events. How differently Orton we will pass this winter from last. I can hardly realize sometimes I am the same girls Wandering all the summer all sometimes I become so weary I longed to be home just [once?] more

But I have had a great deal of enjoyment too, Va is a dear old state & I have had an opportunity of seeing what it really is to a certain extent & testing the kindness & agreability of Virginians. Here ‘tis as much like home as anywhere now, but it won’t do to contrast Arlington with this small habitation! There is one thing I miss that I enjoyed last winter; now perhaps you think, with a man’s usual vanity ’tis yourself, though I can hardly imagine you calling yourself a “thing.” No, it is a cat! Poor little Tom is so entirely associated with a winter at home, & I still see him freezing up in the the garret where Cousin Markie C. saw him, afraid of those federal [sol]diers! My little nephew is a great comfort, but [letter damaged] then & delicate, consequently cross & wilful he won’t stand too much petting. What do you think? I have cut my hair off short around my head, & the diversity of opinion as to its becomingness is quite amusing, especially as that object did not enter into my calculation when parting from it. I declare I write you the most childish letters, quite unworthy of the dignity of your spinster cousin, but really the affairs of the country are so discussed it must be a relief to have them excluded from the letters of me who knows nothing but what the papers or people tell her Papa’s letters are infrequent & hurried, he is constantly moving along the coasts of Georgia & S. Carolina. Rooney is at home on leave from the northwest, & hopes to be transferred where his cavalry will fare better than in those mountains .

Mary still at Kinloch & Mil at school in Winchester. Cousin Lum encloses Mama a letter from Cousin M. She has probably written you the contents ere this. She is going to stay with an old Mrs. Gibson in Phila, but her address is still your Uncle Orton’s. Cousin Kate is in Germantown still, Lolo at Bladensburg. Poor Cousin M. how I wish she could be with those she sympathizes with at the South; her letter was very sad but as she said her property was at the North & it seemed as if she had to stay here. Cousin Lum said she had heard of Sallie Carroll’s marriage & Emma Mason’s to Col. Wheaton. We saw the Fairfaxs’ in Richmond, the Dr. is going into practice. Laura Lippitt was also there on a visit. Mamma sends much love, in which all here I know would join did they know I was writing. Now do write to me soon you need not avoid the affairs of the country as you are an eyewitness of them. There is a rumour nearly every day of an advance on Manasses, but the prevailing impression is ’tis a feint to distract us from their batteries opposite Evansport in process of erection, & many believe the attack will be there.

Remember to take care of yourself and don’t forget Our Father in Heaven who is watching over our cause. I pray daily dear O[rton] His blessing may be upon you, & how I wish your own voice may ascend as often for yourself.

Your friend






Source: Photocopy of original letter, Lee Family Papers, Mss1 L51 c 326, Section 16, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2017 May 22    



1. William Orton Williams/Lawrence Williams Orton (1839-1863) was a cousin of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. He dated Lee’s daughter, Agnes, though General Lee and his wife thought Williams—who had a reputation as a hard drinker—unstable. Williams was born 1839 July 7 in Buffalo, New York. He was the son of Captain George W. Williams (1801-1846) and America Pinckney Peter Williams (1803-1842). His father was killed at the battle of Monterey in 1846 July. Williams attended Episcopal School in Alexandria, the same school that Robert E. Lee attended. In March of 1861, Williams was appointed a second lieutenant and served on Winfield Scott’s staff. 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 he 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 was unapologetic. He changed his name to Lawrence Williams Orton and joined the staff of Braxton Bragg. He rose to the rank of colonel after the battle of Shiloh and commanded a cavalry brigade. In June of 1863, Williams and his adjutant, Walter “Gip” Peter were hanged for spying on Union forces in Tennessee. He was executed on 1863 June 9. 

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