On this date in 1861, Vermont private William Scott of the new-formed Army of the Potomac, then fortifying Washington D.C. for the unfolding Civil War in the aftermath of Bull Run, was led out for execution for having fallen asleep at his post.
The so-called Sleeping Sentinel took a sick comrade’s watch even though he himself was bushed, and … well, you know the rest.
Condemned for a dereliction of duty which “may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army” (the words of the army’s commander Gen. McClellan), Scott still attracted widespread sympathy due to the obviously sympathetic nature of his situation. He was a youth new to war, with an exemplary military record outside of his forty winks.
“The American people,” reckoned the New York Times, “are quite unprepared to hear of a measure of such fearful and unwarned rigor as that which was awarded private SCOTT.”
Appeals went straight to the White House, which was conveniently located in the Army of the Potomac’s back yard, and freshman president Abraham Lincoln magnanimously spared the lad.
Still, wanting to use the case to impress military discipline upon the rabble of corn-fed conscripts, that clemency was delivered with a terrifyingly dramatic flourish. Scott was left to contemplate his last hours on the earth, and, Dostoyevsky-like, marched out to the stake ostensibly to face the firing squad. Only then did he and his fellow-soldiers hear the commutation order.*
This exhilarating climax did not long stay the hand of the Reaper, as it transpired.
Scott died in battle the following spring. In death he lives on, as befits the habitues of these pages: fellow Vermonter Lucius E. Chittenden, who was serving in the U.S. Treasury when all this sleeping sentinel stuff went down, commemorated William Scott for posterity in a subsequent entry to the merciful-Lincoln mythology, a postwar volume titled Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel.
The story was also made into a 1914 silent film, which sadly doesn’t seem to be available online: but never fear, this syrupy poem will amply represent our Sentinel’s contribution to the canon.
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!
* There was actually American precedent for this sort of stagey non-execution in a case from the War of 1812.
** Obviously, Lincoln did not actually bring his presidential person to the execution grounds to issue this pardon in the flesh: in fact, the presiding officer on-site simply read out the pardon: “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.”
Part of the Themed Set: Americana.