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The Sleeping Sentinel Who Received the Death Penalty, But Was Saved By President Lincoln

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 2, 2023 3:01 am

The Sleeping Sentinel Who Received the Death Penalty, But Was Saved By President Lincoln

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 2, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the Civil War soldier, William Scott, fell asleep at his post, at the time a transgression that was punishable by execution. What happened next changed military history.

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Happy streaming! And we continue with our American Stories. Up next, a story from Jonathan White, who's a professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and is a Jack Miller Center Fellow. The Jack Miller Center is a nationwide network of scholars and teachers dedicated to educating the next generation about America's founding principles and history.

To learn more, visit jackmillerscenter.org. Let's take a listen to the story. Around 2008, I had the idea to write A History of Dreams during the Civil War. I wanted to know what sleep was like for Union and Confederate soldiers and for the men and women who remained on the home front. What did nighttime sound like?

How dark was it? What did soldiers use for pillows? What kept them up at night? And what did they dream about?

My book came out in 2017 with the University of North Carolina Press. It's called Midnight in America Darkness Sleep and Dreams during the Civil War. When I was researching Midnight in America, I kept coming across the story of a young soldier from Vermont named William Scott. William Scott was 22 years old when he mustered into the 3rd Vermont Infantry in July 1861.

He was a big, awkward country boy with a big heart. Within a few weeks of enlisting, Private Scott found himself encamped near Washington, D.C. On August 29th, he volunteered to take picket duty for a sick friend. The next night, he had to serve on picket again.

He was very tired now, not having really slept for two days. He just couldn't keep his eyes from drooping shut, and sometime between 3 and 4 in the morning on August 31st, Scott was found asleep at his post. Falling asleep at one's post violated the Articles of War, and so Scott was arrested and court-martialed. His trial commenced at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, September 3rd.

He pleaded innocent to the charge but offered no defense. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be shot to death on September 9th. Now, professional soldiers believed that sleeping sentinels like William Scott should be executed. They believed that the death penalty would set an example to other soldiers that you must stay awake at your post.

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman said that a superhuman effort should be made to correct the evil of soldiers falling asleep while on guard. So on the morning of September 9th, 1861, the 3rd Vermont Infantry and several other regiments were lined up to witness Scott's execution. A firing squad of 12 men took its position.

According to one report, one of Scott's brothers was among the 12 executioners. But as the assembled troops stood watching, something unexpected happened. Rather than read the sentence of execution, an officer readied pardon, it stated that President Lincoln had decided to show young Private Scott mercy. The soldiers who witnessed this scene gave a rousing cheer. One Democrat in the Army was so elated that he pledged to vote for Old Abe if he is ever a candidate again.

Private Scott was released and returned to duty. At least 2,000 Union soldiers were court-martialed during the Civil War for falling asleep at their post. About 90 of them were sentenced to be executed. Lincoln commuted the sentences of all 90.

Today we understand that the human body requires a fixed amount of rest for the brain's motor skills to function properly. In the 19th century, the Army didn't know any better. Professional soldiers thought that falling asleep on picket reflected the inherent weakness of a person's character.

They thought he was ill-disciplined, even immoral. Within this context, Lincoln's pardoning of William Scott and the other sleeping sentinels takes on a special meaning. Lincoln was not simply showing mercy to young soldiers.

His pardon was an act of justice. Now for his part, William Scott was so moved by Lincoln's kindness that he said, I will show President Lincoln that I am not afraid to die for my country. Poor William Scott did just that a few months later. On April 16th, 1862, Private Scott fell at the Battle of Dam Number One in what is now Newport News Park, just a few miles up the road from where I teach at Christopher Newport University. The battle was part of the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, when the Union Army left Fort Monroe and marched its way up the Virginia Peninsula in an attempt to capture Richmond. On April 16th, the Union troops found the Confederates entrenched behind earthworks on the other side of the Warwick River.

Holding their guns, ammunition, and gunpowder above their heads to keep them dry, they waded into the water and marched slowly across to attack the men in gray. A hailstorm of Confederate bullets and shrapnel peppered the water around them, and William Scott was hit six times. Later, one of Scott's comrades sent a letter to Lincoln describing Scott's dying words. Tell President Lincoln that I thank him for his generous regard for me, when a poor soldier under the sentence of death. Tell him that I died for my country with six bullets shot into me, by my enemies and his enemies and my country's enemies.

And oh, tell him that I hope that God will guide and direct him and take care of him in all the scenes through which he may be called to pass. Yes, God bless President Lincoln, for he will one day give him victory over all our enemies. Following his death, Scott's story evolved into a powerful morality tale that not only taught soldiers to do their duty, but also showed the nation that their commander-in-chief was a kind-hearted man. In 1863, a poem called The Sleeping Sentinel instantly gained a wide readership throughout the North. On January 19th, 1863, the celebrated elocutionist James Murdoch read The Sleeping Sentinel before an audience at the White House that included the President and First Lady. Later that day, Murdoch read the poem in the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol, again with Abraham and Mary Lincoln in attendance. Murdoch then toured the country reciting the poem. Three thousand people thronged to hear him at the American Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

Enthusiastic crowds flocked to hear it in Baltimore, Albany, Boston, and other cities. Over the next few years, The Sleeping Sentinel would also be read to soldiers in the field to encourage them to remain brave and faithful in their duties. The poem traces Private Scott's life from the pure mountain air of Vermont to his selfless and patriotic enlistment. The poem compares Scott to the devoted but weak disciples of Christ who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before the crucifixion.

Yet Jesus with compassion moved beheld their heavy eyes and though betrayed to ruthless foes, forgiving bade them rise. The poem then shifts to the White House where Lincoln in a dark secluded room paces back and forth, his heart burdened with the grief of a nation that is suffering. And yet amid the din of war he heard the plaintive cry of that poor soldier as he lay in prison doomed to die. The poem then takes the reader to the army camp where a manacled, ashamed Private Scott awaits his execution. But rather than be shot to death, Lincoln saves the day. 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.

The sleeping sentinel is a story of redemption and sacrifice. Lincoln is a messianic figure who saves a penitent young sinner and William Scott becomes a martyr for justice and right, sacrificing his own life for his nation, his cause, and his savior. Today you can visit the spot where William Scott was killed in Newport News Park. As you walk across the Warwick River on a wooden footbridge you approach the very same earthworks that concealed the Confederates in 1862. And if you drive a few miles to the National Cemetery in Yorktown, Virginia you can visit William Scott's grave. It's a quiet, peaceful spot.

You'll find him resting in plot number 351. When you go you can reflect on the sacrifices of the Civil War generation and the wisdom and mercy of a great American leader. And a terrific job on the editing, production, and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Jonathan White who is a professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University.

Special thanks also to the Jack Miller Center. And what a story about William Scott, 22 years old, joins the 3rd Vermont Infantry and ultimately falls asleep at the post and quickly found guilty and ordered to be shot to death. At the time in 1861 as the sentence of execution was about to be read, instead was read a pardon. The story of a soldier, the story of a merciful president, and a beautiful president.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-02 04:26:48 / 2023-05-02 04:32:02 / 5

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