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