When William Scott of Groton, Vt., signed up to fight for the Union at the start of the Civil War, the eager, forthright soldier would not have anticipated the fame in store for him. While he died heroically in battle, he will always be best known as the sleeping sentinel of Vermont.
This story starts as August turned to September in 1861. The boys of Vermont’s Third Regiment, Vermont Volunteer Infantry had traveled as far away from home as they could ever imagine. In the mountains of their home state, the cool nights would be starting to draw out the bold colors of autumn.
But in Virginia, where the regiment camped less than two months after being called up, the soldiers stewed in the South’s swampy, late-summer heat. These soldiers found themselves in the divided country’s most hostile environment. Posted as sentries along the Potomac River, they had to keep the newly independent Confederate States from storming the nation’s capital.
These were strange times for the Washington region. Virginia and the capitol city frequently sparred. Loyalties were still fluid, and distinguishing enemies from friends was not always easy. The war that started in South Carolina had recently burst into action at Bull Run in Manassas, Va.
Still, around the capital the Union troops protecting Washington and the Confederate troops on the Virginia side of the river had developed a casual attitude toward one another. This relationship probably reflected the naiveté on the part of Union soldiers. While they relaxed, southern spies operated in and around the region and gathered intelligence.
The dire nature of the situation was not lost on the Vermont regiment’s Brig. Gen. William Farrar Smith of St. Albans, better known as “Baldy.” Smith had advanced himself into leadership when, first, several Vermonters passed on the “opportunity” to lead the Vermont men south. Once in Washington, other officers began wilting under the heat, and Smith won a promotion from colonel to general.
A West Point-trained military man, Smith had ambition and no inclination to sentimentality. Army brass thought at the time that executing a soldier or two for dereliction of duty would quickly instill better discipline in the green troops. That attitude put Smith on a collision course with his fellow Vermonter, Private Scott.
Private Scott Goes to Washington
A second-generation American whose parents had emigrated from Scotland, Scott was one of four brothers who joined up when Congress authorized the president to raise an army. He was stationed at Camp Lyon in what is now Alexandria, Va. As one of its principle duties, the encampment had to guard the Chain Bridge and other Potomac crossings that connected Virginia to Washington.
Virginia officially seceded in May of 1861, and within days Union forces crossed over from Washington to Alexandria to establish fortifications. Camp Lyon was a busy place, and in its early days anything but restful.
Scott was committed to the fight, but like most of his regiment he disliked this new environment. “I’d rather see all the snow that ever fell in Vermont than to endure the weather we have to endure here,” he wrote home at one point. In another letter, he said, “It rained like everything, and we never slept a wink all night. A soldier’s life is nothing more or less than a dog’s life. “
Vermont Capt. Francis Randall wrote that soldiers were often exhausted. “I have seen the boys walking their beat regularly when they were so completely asleep that they could not observe my approach till I spoke to them. They would mechanically execute their duty, but consciousness had fled,” he wrote.
On the evening of August 31, Scott was assigned to stand watch. Customarily, three individuals stood at a post. They would take turns, one man standing a two-hour shift while the other two men slept.
Scott was discovered sleeping at his post in the early hours of September 1. The military charged him with sleeping on duty, and the sleeping sentinel legend was born. For a sentry to fall asleep was a capital offense. Col. Breed Hyde of Hyde Park, Vt., promoted with Smith, ordered Scott’s execution on September 4.
The decision stirred Scott’s comrades to action. They gathered 191 signatures on a petition asking for leniency. They pleaded Scott’s case right up the chain, and eventually their appeals reached President Lincoln, who took pity on the Vermont soldier. Scott had conducted himself as an exemplary soldier, but for one moment when exhaustion got the better of him.
Rev. Moses Parmelee, the regiment’s chaplain, most likely took the case to the White House. However, no one really knows exactly ow it reached Lincoln’s attention. Parmelee may have simply waited to meet with the president. Lucius Eugene Chittenden, a fellow Vermonter from Williston and register of the treasury, may have brought the petition to him. He would later write an account of the sleeping sentinel.
Over the years, historians have disputed the details of the pardon. Waldo Glover documented the ins and outs of those arguments in his Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel of Vermont. Lincoln pardoned many soldiers. He didn’t like to issue the death penalty against men who committed minor offenses in the military.
Some historians record that Lincoln traveled to Scott’s camp to deliver the pardon and make sure the Army enforced it. It would not be impossible for this to have happened. Lincoln often visited the troops. But many historians believe he did not make the trip himself to follow up once he’d sent the pardon order to Gen. George McClellan.
Historians do agree that the officers in charge of the camp determined to use the sentence to demonstrate the seriousness of sleeping while on picket duty.
Capt. Randall, who was in charge of Scott’s company, recalled the event in his letters:
“To make a suitable impression on the men, the fact of this pardon was not communicated, and on the morning all the regiments of the brigade were drawn up in hollow square and arrangements for the execution all made. And the prisoner brought out to the stand as though he was to be shot, he of course knowing nothing of the pardon. He was deadly pale and shook from head to foot and was almost unable to sustain his weight.
“After all was ready, the pardon was read to him in the hearing of all. This took a great load off from the minds of that vast crowd, all of whom sympathized most keenly with the unfortunate young man, and they gave vent to their joy in cheer upon cheer for the president that made the land of Dixie ring for miles around.
“But I tremble for fear that some of our boys may yet get into trouble this way. It is hard to make them realize the fact that the responsibility of a sentry is great – awfully great in an enemy’s country. This, however, will do them some good.”
Some say General Smith intended to pardon Scott all along, that he always intended to throw a scare into the men. Others say no. Regardless, newspapers across the country repeated the story of Lincoln’s pardon of the sleeping sentinel. It had what was probably its planned effect. It increased Lincoln’s popularity, especially among potential soldiers pleased to see Private Scott treated fairly.
With the trial behind him, Scott returned to his regimental duties where he established himself as a hard-working, able soldier.
The sleeping sentinel never did return home to Vermont. He died a hero’s death at Lee’s Mill in April of 1862 in the run up to the siege of Yorktown. He was killed leading a charge of the rifle pits (an extremely high-risk mission) to clear the path for the siege.
Fellow soldiers remembered him as a brave and diligent man. Many apocryphal stories say that in his final words he prayed for President Lincoln. He was buried in Yorktown.
By the end of the Civil War, two of his brothers had also been killed. A fourth Scott brother died soon after returning home because of injuries suffered in the war.
Thomas Scott, William’s father, traveled to Washington in the wake of his son’s ordeal to personally thank the president. Upon hearing that the older Scott managed his farm without help from his sons, the president slipped him $10. Then he issued a pass to allow him to visit his sons at the front.
Captain Randall received a promotion to colonel, though his history had some blemishes. He was charged early in the war with deserting his post at Falls Church, Va., and suspended from his command for 30 days. He redeemed himself, however, for his actions at the Battle of Gettysburg.
William “Baldy” Smith had a long and up-and-down career in the army. He was twice thrown from his horse at Lee’s Mill and was accused of drunkenness (a charge he was cleared of). He participated in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Later he received credited for exceptional skill as general in charge of the Army of the Cumberland, which won him a promotion.
His sponsor, Gen. Ulysses Grant, soon regretted that promotion. And critics said his hesitant performance at the Battle of Petersburg extended the war for a year. He lost his command following that incident. Upon his demotion, the New York Times reported that his “spirit of fault-finding” and pursuit of personal aggrandizement caused his troubles.
This story was updated in 2022.