THE STORY OF GROTON’S HISTORICAL SLEEPING SENTINEL
His Memory Lives On
by Marilyn Hatch-Ruiter
Used by permission of the Journal Opinion and its author, Marilyn Hatch-Ruiter
GROTON — “The Sleeping Sentinel ” of Groton is the most notable Private of the Civil War. Historians and writers of that period, and ever since, have written many words about the remarkable Groton soldier – Private William Scott.
This is a time of special significance in Groton’s history, as both Scott’s birth and death occurred during the month of April.
A Vermont granite monument can be seen alongside the heavily traveled U.S. Route 302 highway, and is situated about five miles west of Groton Village. The memorial was cut and engraved by the James W. Main Granite Company of Groton. Special dedication ceremonies for the stately remembrance marker were conducted June 25, 1936 by the Grand Army of the Republic, and attended by noted Groton and Vermont officials and citizens.
The engraved stone tells the story of “The Sleeping Sentinel,” and denotes the nearby cellar hole of the farmhouse where Scott was born on April 9, 1839. At that spot Thomas and Mary (Wormwood) Scott raised a family, with William Scott and four of his brothers responding to the call of President Abraham Lincoln for volunteers to fight in the War Between the States on July 10, 1861. They enlisted in the Union Army as members of Company K of the Third Vermont Infantry Regiment.
Seven days after his 23rd birthday, 145 years ago on April 16, 1862, Scott laid down his life admirably for his country. He died from five, perhaps, six gunshot wounds upon the battlefield at Lee’s Mills, VA., while assaulting the Confederate lines. However, that is not the reason for Scott’s notoriety.
The name of this 23 year old Vermont youth has been featured alongside that of President Lincoln, “the great emancipator.” Lincoln issued a presidential pardon that spared the life of William Scott.
Private Scott had been court-martialled and he was sentenced to be put to death by a firing squad on September 9, 1861. He had been found guilty of falling asleep at his post, while on watch upon the Potomac, where he had been assigned to guard the Chain Bridge and the Nation’s Capitol. Scott was found asleep there on August 31, 1861 between the hours of three and four a.m.
Only a few months before that, Scott had enlisted and made the trip by train to Washington, D.C., starting out on July 24 and arriving on July 28. The raw Vermont troops were accustomed to a very different climate and were marched immediately to Georgetown Heights, to a post known as Camp Lyon. There they experienced intensive training as well as serving on picket duty.
Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith was the brigade commander and he took orders from Lt. General George B. McClellan, who was commanding the Army of the Potomac.
According to the Articles of War at that time, General Orders required that a sentry found asleep on duty should be shot. Four days prior to the Vermont regiment starting the guard of this strategic bridge, the Union forces had been badly beaten at Manasses Junction. General P.G. Beauregard’s Confederate army was about ten miles away, south of the river, and a sentinel asleep at his post could have helped cause the loss and fall of Washington.
All accounts written about the “The Sleeping Sentinel” report that Private Scott had actually volunteered to take the place of a sick comrade and was serving his second consecutive night of sentry duty, when Scott was found asleep by the officer of the guard. He was immediately arrested.
A copy of the death warrant of the court martial made available from the Fairbanks’s Museum in St. Johnsbury, VT, shows that it was signed by Colonel B.N. Hyde on Sept. 4, 1861. Scott’s death sentence was to have taken place Sept. 9, 1861.
The death penalty seems very harsh to people of this day, and it also seems to have been viewed as severe by Scott’s contemporaries. Conflicting reports indicate that officers and enlisted men appealed to Brig General Smith through a signed petition bearing 191 signatories asking for a pardon. The Chaplain, the Rev. Moses P. Parmalee, is believed to have presented President Lincoln late Sunday evening with the execution planned for Monday morning.
Another story actually tells of Lincoln sending the pardoning order, then worried about the situation, ordered his carriage and had it driven the 10 miles to make certain that Scott’s life was spared.
In an essay written by Mrs. William (Nellie T.) Jeffrey of Groton, she wrote that President Lincoln told Scott he was not to be shot the next morning and did not merit the death penalty. Scott had given the President his solemn pledge, never again to fail in his duty to his country.
EXECUTION STILL PLANNED
But the story does not end there. The commanding officer decided to carry out the execution plan anyway to impress upon the men the seriousness of the offense. The brigade formed a hollow-square formation, the prisoner was blind folded, and the general order was read. The pardon then was read noting it was the president’s wish that mercy be extended to Scott.
In military terms Lincoln’s wish as chief executive, was an order and Scott was immediately returned to duty. The language contained in the pardon also declared that the pardon on Scott would not set a precedent.
Although news didn’t travel as fast as it does today. There was an editorial in the New York Times written at that time, that called for the carrying out the sentence to set an example for others. It was an order that had never been taken that seriously.
One conclusive piece of evidence was letter revealed by Waldo F. Glover, Groton’s Historian, in his book written in 1936 entitled “Abraham Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel of Vermont.” In it Glover explained that General McClellan wrote to his wife on Sept. 8, 1861 in the evening before the execution as to have taken place. He wrote, “Mr. Lincoln came this morning to ask me to pardon a man that I had ordered to be shot.”
Glover in his writings notes that Vermont newspapers carried the story and a letter from Captain Francis V. Randall which verified the petition, and the general good character of Scott and the pardon. Glover also told of one woman spending the entire execution day with Mary Scott, his mother. William Scott’s father later personally thanked President Lincoln who allowed Thomas Scott to visit his sons with the army in Virginia. The president is reported to have given the father a $10 bill, after he was asked how he could manage his farm with five of his sons at war.
George Scott is recorded to have died in Maryland on November 4, 1862; while Daniel died March 25, 1864 in Virginia. Another brother of William, John, reportedly lived many years after returning home. Joseph W. Scott of Company H. Sixth Vermont Volunteers is believed to be the brother who died of his war wounds shortly after returning home to Vermont.
Joseph’s remains are that of the only brother who was buried at home. His gravestone is believed to be in an old cemetery situated at the top right hand corner of a knoll on the opposite side of the road from the memorial honoring his “Sleeping Sentinel Brother.”
WILLIAM SCOTT’S DEATH
About seven months after the pardon, on April 16, 1862, William Scott was sent with a contingency of 192 men to destroy the Confederate rifle pits across the Warwick River at Lee’s Mills, VA. Only about 100 men returned from that mission. Private Scott fell mortally wounded, while struggling up a riverbank with a wounded soldier on his shoulders. He is reported to have saved several men from drowning the muddy waters of that river.
Knowing that he was dying the next morning of his bullet wounds he sustained, he called some of his closest comrades to his hospital cot. There he relayed messages to his family and friends at home. He also made an earnest plea that if it was at all possible that President Lincoln be told of the circumstances of his death. He asked that his gratitude be expressed for the pardon, which made it possible for him to die in battle as a soldier and not at the hands of a firing squad.
William Scott’s record as a Company K soldier from the day of his pardon was considered to be outstanding according to all reports. No assignment was too dangerous or difficult for his ready acceptance and no one was ill or in trouble was ever ignored by him..
Charles Emery of Groton, and of Company C. helped carry Scott’s body from the battlefield. George Philbrick, also of Groton, along with Emery were in attendance at Scott’s burial, as was Dr. Seth Eastman, another Groton soldier. Scott was buried under the blossoming trees on the banks of the Warwick River.
WORTHY OF REMEMBRANCE
During the Vermont legislative session of 1945, through the efforts of a Groton Representative, the late Mrs. Nellie Jeffrey, U. S. Route 302 beginning at the intersection of U.S. Route 2 and extending through the city of Barre was named the William Scott Memorial Highway and it was the duty of the State to see that the highway was to appropriately marked The road runs through Barre, Orange, Topsham, Groton, Ryegate, Newbury and the Village of Wells River, to the Vermont-New Hampshire border. Groton citizen, Marilyn Hatch-Ruiter in 1994 reading again “Mr. Glover’s Groton” historical book, “the Vermont State Highway Board was “hereby authorized to properly mark the designated highway accordingly.” Noting the omission to properly mark the William Scott Memorial Highway.” Hatch-Ruiter took her concern to the Groton Selectmen who had a letter written to the Vermont Transportation Agency asking that the highway be so marked with signage. In response, the State, within two months had signs noting its official name.
Carl Sandburg, in his biography “The War Years,” quoted Lincoln concerning the Scott incident and pardon. Francis Janvier, a contemporary poet, wrote a ballad about Scott.
Scott is remembered by both local citizens and through numerous mentions in historical writings. The memory of the valiant soldier, Private William Scott lives on.