The Sleeping Sentinel
September 9, 1861. On August 30, the Third Vermont Regiment was encamped near Washington, DC; its job was to guard a strategic bridge between Georgetown and northern Virginia.
That night Private William Scott, the son of a hardscrabble farmer from Groton, Vermont, took a friend’s place on picket duty despite the fact that he’d been on guard duty the night before. Between 2:00 am and 3:00 am, the officer of the guard found Scott asleep when he should have been keeping watch. He was arrested and charged with being a sentinel asleep at his post. The penalty was death.
On September 5 a court-martial consisting of twelve other Vermonters found Scott guilty, and he was sentenced to be shot four days later. Scott was to be the first soldier in the Army of the Potomac to be executed.
The news spread quickly around the country. Nearly two hundred of his regiment signed a petition asking for leniency.
The pleas for mercy were not unanimous, however, because his crime was an enormously serious one. The New York Times argued that the sentence should be carried out “to prevent the recurrence of a similar dereliction among our troops.”
His falling asleep while guarding a key bridge put the nation’s capital at risk — and when it happened, it was just four days after the Union had been badly defeated not far away, at Bull Run.
Two days before the scheduled execution, President Lincoln met with the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan, and asked him to pardon Scott.
According to Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, the President said,
“I could not think of going into eternity with the blood of that poor young man on my skirts. It is not to be wondered at that a boy, raised on the farm, probably in the habit of going to bed at dark, should, when required to watch, fall asleep; and I cannot consent to shooting him for such an act.”
Lincoln acknowledged that such actions on his part, while making some happy, run the risk of undermining army discipline.
On the morning of September 9, the regiment was assembled, a six-man firing squad formed, and Private Scott brought forward.
The officer summarized the case, and then explained that “the President of the United States had expressed a wish that, as this is the first condemnation to death in the army for this crime, mercy may be extended to the criminal.
This fact, viewed in this 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,” had caused General McClellan “to grant the pardon so earnestly prayed for.” But the order then warned that pardons might not always be forthcoming for soldiers who fall asleep on sentry duty, an offense to which “all nations affix the penalty of death.”
Scott was then returned to his regiment for duty. Seven months later, William Scott, the “sleeping sentinel,” would be shot six times and killed in battle at Lee’s Mills, Virginia.
Roadside signs on Vermont Route 302 between Barre and Wells River, on the Connecticut River, note that it is the William Scott Memorial Highway. It goes through Groton, Vermont, Private Scott’s hometown. On the side of the road a granite monument marks the place where Scott grew up.
The American Revolution Inspires the North and South
September 14, 1861.
“During a scout near Cheat Mountain, Virginia, in the fall of 1861, a squad of federal cavalry approached a group of mounted men. The men turned and fled. The Union soldiers fired and one man fell off his horse, struck by four balls. The Union soldiers rushed toward him and he — in accordance with his rebel ‘brutish instincts’ — pulled his revolver but was too weak to fire. . . . The Union soldiers tended him but he soon died. Examining his corpse, the soldiers learned that he was Lt. Col. John A. Washington. [He was, wrote one of the soldiers on September 14, 1861,] ‘the great-nephew of George Washington Shot in the back in the very act of treason against the government his great ancestor constructed.’
“That same autumn Maj. Paul Joseph Revere [grandson of Revolutionary hero Paul Revere] was taken prisoner by Confederate soldiers and confined in Richmond. He and his brother were among the officers held hostage for the crew of the ship Savannah, who were being threatened with execution as pirates by the U.S. government. . . . Major Revere was not executed, but exchanged. Upon his death in 1863, his regiment delivered him a tribute; they proclaimed him a ‘cheerful and dauntless christian soldier,’ one worthy of the name of his grandfather. . . .
“The Civil War proved curiously filled with echoes of the American Revolution. . . . The events and the very places of the Revolution reappeared in men’s memories throughout the war years. The Revolutionary War had created the American nation. It also created American nationalism, for a sense of national identity is dependent on history and myths. A people require symbols to bind themselves into a nation; the Revolution provided them. Thus the men who fought the war for the Union — the nation that the Revolutionary generation had founded — believed that they embodied the principles of 1776.
“But the Revolution did not simply create a new nation; it sundered an existing empire; Southerners did not repudiate the Revolution in 1861; they did not renounce the legacy of 1776. Confederates saw themselves as the true Americans. The sectional conflict and the Civil War were in some ways a conflict over the meaning of a shared past.”
Reid Mitchell Civil War Soldiers (1997), pp. 1-2