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How many of you have been so tired that you couldn't help falling asleep? But have you every run the risk of being punished, even put to death if you did? If you're like me the answer to the first question is probably yes and to the second, probably no. Tonight's tidbits is about a Vermont soldier who fell asleep while on sentinel duty and was sentenced to die.

The story of William Scott has myth as well as fact tied to it. William enlisted as a private in Company K, 3rd Vermont Volunteers, at Montpelier, Vermont on July 10, 1861. In July they moved to Chain Bridge on the Potomac River about six miles from Washington. Their job was to guard the bridge, which was an important approach to Washington from Virginia. Now, the majority of the troops were raw recruits, farm boys if you will, who were ignorant of military life and the rigors it imposed. One of the problems encountered was that of sentries falling asleep while on duty.

One night, William and two others were posted as sentinels to watch the bridge. It was required that only one of them had to stay awake but, the captain of the guard, while making his rounds found all three of them asleep. The three of them agreed that they should have been awake and William was arrested, held three days, tried and sentenced to be shot. General McClellan approved the sentence and set the execution date for September 9.

This aroused a lot of William's fellow soldiers, who along with many of the officers, signed a petition for pardon. They held a meeting and organized a committee who went to see L.E. Chittenden, Registrar of the Treasury. Chittenden, also a Vermonter, took them to see Lincoln, who listened to their plea. It's possible that Lincoln said as Chittenden quoted him, "I do not think an honest, brave soldier, conscious of no crime but sleeping when his was weary, ought to be shot or hung. The country has better uses for him."

On the morning of September 8, Lincoln visited General McClellan and requested that William Scott be pardoned. That afternoon, Brigadier General Smith sent the four page petition to McClellan who already had the process for pardon in motion. So it was that William Scott came to be pardoned.

Seven months later, while storming Lee's Mill in Virginia, William Scott was shot six times and died serving his country. Today, a granite marker stands on the site of William's home in Groton, Vermont honoring the soldier who almost lost his life because he fell asleep while on sentry duty.

Francis de Haes Janvier, a government employment wrote a long narrative poem called "The Sleeping Sentinel". Part of it goes like this:

Then suddenly was heard the noise of steeds and wheels approach,-

And, rolling through a cloud of dust, appeared a stately coach.

On, past the guard, 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 .

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!

Glover, Waldo F. "Abraham Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel of Vermont" Canada Vt. Civil War Enterprises, 1998.

Sandburg, Carl "Abraham Lincoln The War Years" Vol 3. Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. 1939.

I hope all the kinks are worked out with the alias and all of you who want to be receiving the tidbits are.

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux