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3rd Vermont Infantry
The Sleeping Sentinel
William Scott, The Sleeping Sentinel

The epithet "Sleeping Sentinel," applied to Private William Scott, of Company K, 3rd Vermont Infantry, could be a double-entendre. Although the title is usually meant to refer to his falling asleep on picket duty near Fort Marcy, Virginia, on the night of September 3, 1861, it can also apply to his final resting place, standing his final watch over a portion of one of America's most hollowed fields, among the honored dead at Yorktown National Cemetery.

William Scott, The Sleeping Sentinel, tombstone at Yorktown National Cemetery


George G. Benedict, Vermont's Civil War Historian, included the following accounts of Scott's service in "Vermont in the Civil War," published in 1888. Benedict perpetuated much of the myth surrounding Scott's reprieve by Lincoln. Carl Sandburg's treatment of the story is the most factual this writer has seen. He said, although the president was aware of Scott's case, and expressed an interest in it, he did not issue the reprieve, and did not "after a drive of nearly ten miles, made his appearance at the brigade headquarters, to reiterate his order in person, and make sure of the life of the young Vermonter." Records also imply that Scott, mortally wounded by as many as five or six bullets, was in a coma before his death, and could not have uttered the words ascribed to him. Providing both the myth and the facts of the story, Sandburg's conclusion was that the press had blown the story all out of proportion. Doesn't that sound familiar? But even Sandburg wasn't quite right. According to the Vermont Historical Society, in 1997, the original court-martial and pardon documents were discovered and authenticated. William Scott had indeed been pardoned by President Lincoln at the request of the enlisted man's regiment.

Regardless, the story remains an endearing testimony to the foibles and the valor of Vermont's Green Mountain Boys.

In the night of the 3d of September [1861], the [3rd Vermont Infantry] regiment moved with General Smith's brigade, across Chain Bridge into Virginia, and bivouacked by the side of the turnpike a mile beyond the bridge. For several weeks after, it was occupied chiefly in fatigue duty, felling trees and. throwing up fortifications for the defence of Washington, principally on the fort at first named Fort Smith; in honor of General William F. Smith, but afterwards known as Fort Marcy. While here, an incident occurred which created no small sensation in the army, was widely published in the newspapers and became a fruitful theme for poetry and romance. William Scott, a private in Co. K, of the Third Vermont, was found asleep on his post, while on picket duty; was tried by court martial for the crime, found guilty, and sentenced to be shot—the first sentence of the kind on record in the army. Scott was only twenty-two years of age, of good character, and had been on picket duty two nights in succession, having voluntarily taken the place of a sick comrade the night before. His case aroused great sympathy. A petition for his pardon was signed by hundreds, from privates of the various regiments of the brigade up to General Smith, and was taken to Washington by Chaplain Parmelee. The sentence was promulgated on the 5th of September, and was to be executed on the morning of the 8th. In the evening of the 7th, the matter came to the knowledge of President Lincoln, and he at once granted a respite of the sentence. His order for a stay of the execution was telegraphed to Camp Advance; but hearing nothing from it and fearing it might have miscarried, Mr. Lincoln ordered his carriage, and a little before midnight, after a drive of nearly ten miles, made his appearance at the brigade headquarters, to reiterate his order in person, and make sure of the life of the young Vermonter. Next morning the arrangements for the execution went on. The brigade was drawn up in hollow square, a shooting party detailed, and Scott was brought out, as if for death. He was deadly pale, and an occasional shudder shook his exhausted frame, but he asked for no mercy. The following order was then read:

HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
      Washington, September 8.

Private William Scott, of Company K. of the Third regiment of Vermont volunteers, having been found guilty by court martial of sleeping on his post while a sentinel on picket guard, has been sentenced to be shot, and the sentence has been approved and ordered to be executed. The commanding officers of the brigade, the regiment and the company, of the command, together with many other privates and officers of his regiment, have earnestly appealed to the Major-General commanding, to spare the life of the offender, and the President of the United States has expressed a wish that as this is the first condemnation to death in this army for this crime, mercy may be extended to the criminal. This fact, viewed in connection with the inexperience of the condemned as a soldier, his previous good conduct and general good character, and the urgent entreaties made in his behalf, have determined the Major-General commanding to grant the pardon so earnestly prayed for. This act of clemency must not be understood as affording a precedent for any future case. The duty of a sentinel is of such a nature, that its neglect by sleeping upon or deserting his post may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army, and all nations affix to the offence the penalty of death. Private William Scott of Co. K. of the Third regiment of Vermont volunteers, will be released from confinement and returned to duty.

By command of Maj.—General McClellan,
      S. WILLIAMS, Asst. Adjt.-General.

The camp rang with cheers for President Lincoln after the dismissal of the parade, and Scott returned to his company, to do good service as a soldier, and to give his life seven months later, while gallantly charging the rebel rifle pits at Lee's Mill.

................

Among the men of the Third who charged the rifle pits [at Lee's Mill] was William Scott, the young man who was sentenced to death for sleeping on his post soon after the regiment went out, and was pardoned by the President. Scott pressed forward where the balls were flying thickest and fell with several mortal wounds. His comrades raised him up, and heard him with his dying breath amid the shouting and din of the fight, lift a prayer for God's blessing on President Lincoln, who had given him a chance to show that he was no coward or sneak, and not afraid to die.

Footnote to the previous paragraph: Scott was buried in a little grove of holly and wild cherry trees on the Garrow Farm, in a spot where some Revolutionary War soldier, who fell in the siege of Yorktown nearly 80 years before, had found burial, as shown by buttons and a belt clasp thrown up in digging Scott's grave. The chaplain prayed earnestly for the President, and on the calm face of the dead his comrades thought they saw a look of satisfaction and peace, which would have richly rewarded the kind heart of Abraham Lincoln if he could have seen it, for his act of mercy. The incident was made known to Mr. Lincoln, and in an interview with Adjutant General P. T. Washburn subsequently, Mr. Lincoln alluded to it with emotion, speaking also in terms of high praise of the bravery shown by the Vermonters at Lee's Mill.

(Benedict, i 132-134, 262)


The Sleeping Sentinel

by Francis De Haes Janvier

'Twas in the sultry summer-time, as war's red records show,
When patriot armies rose to meet a fratricidal foe;
When from the North, and East, and West, like the upheaving sea,
Swept forth Columbia's sons, to make our country truly free.

Within a prison's dismal walls, where shadows veiled decay,
In fetters, on a heap of straw, a youthful soldier lay;
Heart-broken, hopeless, and forlorn, with short and feverish breath,
He waited but the appointed hour to die a culprit's death.

Yet, but a few brief weeks before, untroubled with a care,
He roamed at will, and freely drew his native mountain air;
Where sparkling streams leap mossy rocks, from many a woodland font,
And waving elms and grassy slopes give beauty to Vermont;

Where, dwelling in a humble cot, a tiller of the soil,
Encircled by a mother's love, he shared a father's toil.
Till, borne upon the wailing winds, his suffering country's cry
Fired his young heart with fervent zeal, for her to live or die.

Then left he all; a few fond tears, by firmness half concealed,
A blessing, and a parting prayer, and he was in the field.
The field of strife, whose dews are blood, whose breezes war's hot breath,
Whose fruits are garnered in the grave, whose husbandman is death!

Without a murmur he endured a service new and hard;
But, wearied with a toilsome march, it chanced one night, on guard,
He sank, exhausted, at his post, and the gray morning found
His prostrate form, a sentinel asleep upon the ground!

But God is love - and finite minds can faintly comprehend
How gentle Mercy, in His rule, may with stern Justice blend;
And this poor soldier, seized and bound, found none to justify,
While war's inexorable law decreed that he must die.

'Twas night. In a secluded room, with measured tread and slow,
A statesman of commanding mien paced gravely to and fro.
Oppressed, he pondered on a land by civil discord rent;
On brothers armed in deadly strife: it was the President!

The woes of thirty millions filled his burdened heart with grief;
Embattled hosts, on land and sea, acknowledged him their chief;
And yet, amid the din of war, he heard the plaintive cry
Of that poor soldier, as he lay in prison, doomed to die!

'Twas morning. On a tented field, and through the heated haze,
Flashed back, from lines of burnished arms, the sun's effulgent blaze;
While, from a somber prison house, seen slowly to emerge,
A sad procession, o'er the sward, moved to a muffled dirge.

And in the midst, with faltering step, and pale and anxious face,
In manacles, between two guards, a soldier had his place.
A youth, led out to die; and yet it was not death, but shame,
That smote his gallant heart with dread, and shook his manly frame!

Still on, before the marshalled ranks, the train pursued its way,
Up to the designated spot, whereon a coffin lay-
His coffin! And, with reeling brain, despairing, desolate-
He took his station by its side, abandoned to his fate!

Then came across his wavering sight strange pictures in the air:
He saw his distant mountain home; he saw his parents there;
He saw them bowed with hopeless grief, through fast declining years;
He saw a nameless grave; and then, the vision closed-in tears!

Yet once again. In double file, advancing, then, he saw
Twelve comrades, sternly set apart to execute the law-
But saw no more; his senses swam-deep darkness settled round-
And, shuddering, he awaited now the fatal volley's sound!

Then suddenly was heard the sounds of steeds and wheels approach,
And, rolling through a cloud of dust, appeared a stately coach.
On, past the guards, and through the field, its rapid course was bent,
Till, halting, 'mid the lines was seen the nation's President!

He came to save that stricken soul, now waking from despair;
And from a thousand voices rose a shout which rent the air!
The pardoned soldier understood the tones of jubilee,
And, bounding from his fetters, blessed the hand that made him free!

'Twas spring. Within a verdant vale, where Warwick's crystal tide
Reflected, o'er its peaceful breast, fair fields on either side;
Where birds and flowers combined to cheer a sylvan solitude,
Two threatening armies, face to face, in fierce defiance stood!

Two threatening armies! One invoked by injured Liberty-
Which bore above its patriot ranks the symbol of the Free;
And one, a rebel horde, beneath a flaunting flag of bars,
A fragment, torn by traitorous hands from Freedom's Stripes and Stars!

A sudden burst of smoke and flame, from many a thundering gun,
Proclaimed, along the echoing hills, the conflict had begun;
While shot and shell athwart the stream with fiendish fury sped,
To strew among the living lines the dying and the dead!

Then, louder than the roaring storm, pealed forth the stern command,
"Charge, soldiers, charge!" and, at the word, with shouts, a fearless band,
Two hundred heroes from Vermont, rushed onward, through the flood,
And upward, o'er the rising ground, they marked their way in blood!

The smitten foe before them fled, in terror, from his post-
While, unsustained, two hundred stood, to battle with a host!
Then, turning, as the rallying ranks, with murderous fire replied,
They bore the fallen o'er the field, and through the purple tide!

The fallen! And the first who fell in that unequal strife
Was he whom Mercy sped to save when Justice claimed his life-
The pardoned soldier! And, while yet the conflict raged around-
While yet his life-blood ebbed away through every gaping wound-

While yet his voice grew tremulous, and death bedimmed his eye-
He called his comrades to attest he had not feared to die!
And, in his last expiring breath, a prayer to heaven was sent,
That God, with his unfailing grace, would bless our President!


Source: Francis De Haes Janvier. Sleeping sentinel. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson Brothers, 1863.

(Photograph courtesy of George Parsons)


See also History of the U.S. Senate, detailing a public performance of Janvier's poem, above.


Links:

For a picture, a short biography and some letters written by William Scott, check out The Vermont Historical Society's website

William Farrar Smith papers, Vermont Historical Society

Bibliography

Allen, Richard Sanders "The Sleeping Sentinel: Most Famous Private of the War" Vermont Life XV:3:51-2 Spring 61

Chittenden, Lucius Eugene. Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel - The True Story. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1909.

Glover, Waldo. Abraham Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel of Vermont. Montpelier, Vt.: The Vermont Historical Society, 1936.

Janvier, Francis D. The Sleeping Sentinel. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson, 1863.

Jeffrey, Nellie T. The Story of William Scott the Sleeping Sentinel. Groton, Vermont: Public Library, 1959.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years in Four Volumes. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1936. 1939 edition.