Civil War Wiki
William Scott
Personal Information
Born: 1839 or 1840
Place of Birth: {{{place of birth}}}
Died: April 17, 1862 (aged 22–23)
Place of Death: {{{place of death}}}
Birth Name: {{{birth name}}}
Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Participation(s): {{{participations}}}
Branch: United States Army
Union Army
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Rank: Private
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
Battles: American Civil War
*Battle at Lee's Mills
Relations: {{{relations}}}
Other work: {{{otherwork}}}

William Scott (c. 1839 or 1840-April 17, 1862) was a Union Army soldier during the American Civil War. He was the "Sleeping Sentinel" who was pardoned by Abraham Lincoln and memorialized by a poem and then a 1914 silent film.


Scott was born in Groton, Vermont, in either 1839 or 1840.

He joined Company K, 3rd Vermont Infantry.[1] This was a company of militia from St. Johnsbury a nearby town.

When his unit was encamped at the Chain Bridge near Washington, D.C., Scott was found asleep at his post on August 31, 1861.[2] He was subsequently court-martialed, and sentenced to be executed. In Scott's defense, he had volunteered to take the place of a comrade the night before and was himself exhausted. This fact were known to the court at the time and figured prominently in newspaper reports, appeals by his superiors for clemency, and his subsequent reprieve. On September 9, Scott was scheduled to be executed. During the proceedings, after the death sentence had been read, a pardon from President Lincoln was read, sparing his life.

Scott served faithfully with his regiment until the Battle at Lee's Mills where he was mortally wounded charging the "rifle pits" there. He was eventually interred in the national cemetery at Yorktown, Virginia.

The pardon[]

The actual pardon was issued by McClellan, not Lincoln.


Private William Scott, of Company K. of the Third regiment of Vermont volunteers, having been found guilty by court martial of sleeping on his post while a sentinel on picket guard, has been sentenced to be shot, and the sentence has been approved and ordered to be executed. The commanding officers of the brigade, the regiment and the company, of the command, together with many other privates and officers of his regiment, have earnestly appealed to the Major-General commanding, to spare the life of the offender, and 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. This fact, viewed in 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, have determined the Major-General commanding to grant the pardon so earnestly prayed for. This act of clemency must not be understood as affording a precedent for any future case. The duty of a sentinel is of such a nature, that its neglect by sleeping upon or deserting his post may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army, and all nations affix to the offence the penalty of death. Private William Scott of Co. K. of the Third regiment of Vermont volunteers, will be released from confinement and returned to duty.

By command of Maj.—General McClellan, S. WILLIAMS, Asst. Adjt.-General.[1]

Investigating his life and death[]

Several historians have reported the drama of his conviction, pardon and subsequent death during battle.

Carl Sandburg has performed the most exhaustive research into Scott's life and death.[1] He had debunked the report of Scott's last dramatic words as improbable due to records which implied that Scott, mortally wounded by as many as five or six bullets, was in a coma before his death, and could not have uttered anything coherent. Nor did Lincoln ride to the camp to ensure his pardon was received in time.

However, recent research has indicated, contrary to Sandburg's findings, that Lincoln was indeed personally aware of the situation and did personally intervene on Scott's behalf.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sleeping Sentinel retrieved July 10, 2008
  2. Another reference says " near Fort Marcy, Virginia, on the night of September 3, 1861"


  • De Haes Janvier, Francis (1863). The Sleeping Sentinel. An incident, in verse. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson & brothers. pp. 19 pages. 
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years in Four Volumes. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1936. 1939 edition.

External links[]