“By the hand of God helping me, I shall some day outride the storms of affliction and land my soul on the other side of Jordan and head our weary souls home to rest where there shall be no death. There we shall have it all peace and harmony. It stands us in hand to be ready for death at any time…”
Though he had penned the words several months earlier, Private William Scott’s prediction was coming true in the darkness of the Virginia Peninsula on the night of April 16, 1862. If the officers had had their way in September 1861, he would have died then at the hands of a firing squad for sleeping at his sentinel post. But a twist of compassion had spared his life then, only for a few more months and a few moments of combat courage.
His life had started on April 6, 1839, in the hills of Vermont. Born to immigrant parents from Scotland, William Scott was one of eight children. He spent his early youth working on his father’s farm, attending school and church, and taking jobs to earn money for his family who were in “very reduced circumstances.”[i] In 1861, five of the Scott boys enlisted, possibly for patriotic causes and possibly for the army pay.
William Scott joined the 3rd Vermont Infantry Regiment. One of his comrades described him as “a big, awkward country lad who had a heart as big as he was.”[ii] Another remembered that Scott never learned to march properly which meant he was often stepping on the heels of the man in front of him and getting trampled by the man behind him. Scott’s photograph shows a large framed young man with a rough beard and a fiercely steady gaze. Despite his marching faults, he was popular in his mess and unit, willing to go out his way to help others.
That unselfishness nearly cost his life. On August 31, 1861, Scott volunteered to stand sentinel duty in place of a friend. The regiment had been tasked with guarding the Chain Bridge near Georgetown which was in a key location to observe and protect Washington City’s reservoir water supply. Scott took his place with two other guards on the north side of the Chain Bridge, ready to spend the night watching the darkness and eyeing the Virginia shore. It was not Scott’s first time on guard duty; in fact, he had been awake and on duty the previous night before his kind volunteering.
Unfortunately, Scott fell asleep. Sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. an officer making the rounds found all three guards at the Chain Bridge asleep. Rousing them, the officer demanded which of them was supposed to be watching and ready to wake the others if needed. Scott said it had been his turn to keep awake. The officer arrested Scott and charged him with violating a new military order: the 46th Article of War.
Newly posted, the 46th Article of War condemned any soldier found guilty by court martial of sleeping at his sentry post to death. Scott plead “not guilty” but the court decided otherwise, sentencing him to execution by firing squad on September 9, 1861. Realizing their comrade had “a warm and honest heart” and that he had slept “because of sheer exhaustion and not because he lacked vigilance,” soldiers of the 3rd Vermont crafted a petition and collected 191 signatures of officers and men to pardon Scott.[iii] National newspapers picked up the story, and Scott was going to be famous — for all the wrong reasons. But in the eyes of the military brass, someone had to be the example and sleeping sentinels could lead to Washington City’s capture.
The regimental chaplain went to the Executive Mansion and asked to see President Lincoln about the matter. Though turned away, the news had already reached Lincoln, and General George McClellan fussed in a letter that the president “came this morning to ask me to pardon a man that I ordered to be shot.”[iv] Eventually, Lincoln gave explicit orders to halt the execution, later saying “Well, I have made one family happy, but I don’t know about the discipline of the army.”[v]
Post war stories emerged which claimed that Lincoln visited Scott, but more eyewitness accounts suggest that Scott did not hear about his pardon until September 9th. Likely, he spent the night trying to quiet his soul and preparing to face the firing squad. In fact, the entire regiment formed, a six man execution squad took position, and Scott was led from a tent, barely able to walk and “deadly pale” while “an occasional shudder shook his exhausted frame.” Wordless, he took his place and expected death.
However, instead of the execution orders, an officer read a countermand order from McClellan’s headquarters which included the words:
“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 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 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… Private William Scott of Co. K of the Third regiment of Vermont volunteers, will be released from confinement and returned to duty.”[vi]
While cheering erupted, Scott’s shock did not give way to emotion in that setting. A letter written after this ordeal suggests that he had spent serious time thinking about mortality and death. “I think it high time that we are looking for our souls’ welfare. Time is but short at the longest. We are certain death is like a thief which cometh in the night when we think not.”[vii] But mercy and pardon could also come just as suddenly. In the words of the chaplain who had petitioned at the White House, he met Scott later in the autumn looking “perfectly happy. He went about his duties as if determined to prove himself worthy of the pardon he was granted. He was always a faithful soldier, but after his pardon he was doubly so.”[viii]
McClellan’s grand scheme to capture Richmond translated into the realities of moving thousands of troops to the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862. The 3rd Vermont Regiment made the journey and advanced to the Warwick River, south and east of Yorktown. The Union regiments sniped and skirmished against the Confederate defenders and the significant earthworks. By mid-April, attacks were attempted, and one of them involved the Vermont Brigade.
On the morning of April 16, 1862, companies of the 3rd and 4th Vermont Regiments formed near Lee’s Mill dam and a skirmish broke out with Confederates across the water. Artillery joined the scene, and McClellan himself came to look and estimate how many Rebels were actually over there. In the mid-afternoon, the Vermont boys were ordered to cross the water and directly attack the Confederates. Private William Scott headed toward the stream in the front ranks.
A corporal from the 3rd Vermont later remembered the fight:
“On we pushed, climbing over logs, roots and every kind of impediment which floated in the water or rested on the ground, firing as we had opportunity, until the channel of the creek was past, and the depth of water began to diminish. Then the gleam of our steadily advancing bayonets began to strike a terror to the rebel hearts and one by one they leaped from behind their breastworks and took cover in the thickets behind. Now commenced a scene which beggars all description. Firmly grasping our trusty rifles we rushed on, shouting, firing, yelling—and ere we set foot on dry land every rebel had left the pits in front of us. I cannot tell you what followed. It makes my heart sick to think of it. Let it suffice to say we held them there at bay for a long hour, waiting, oh how anxiously for reinforcements. The ground was dotted with our comrades dead and the creek was crimson with the blood of our wounded.”
Despite attacking the Confederate earthworks directly and eventually receiving some reinforcements, the Union troops were eventually forced to fall back with nearly 200 casualties and many questions to be settled by officers in the aftermath.
William Scott crossed the stream and was moving toward the solid ground on the Confederate side when five or six bullets ripped into his body. How long he lay there with his blood adding crimson to the creek is not known. But at some point someone carried Scott back to the Union side of the creek and laid him in the woods. His rescuer might have been Julian Scott, a teenage drummer boy from the regiment who would later receive the Medal of Honor for helping approximately nine comrades to safety during the Battle of Lee’s Mill.
Eventually, Scott received medical aid from Surgeon Henry Janes. The details of Scott’s injuries are vague, but at least one bullet had punctured into his abdomen and stomach. The surgeon later said nothing could be done to save his life. Death would not be kept away with a pardon, and Scott’s name would be added to the list of dead from Lee’s Mill. In later years, storytellers spun different versions of William Scott’s last hours and last words. Some claimed he spoke about Lincoln and dying for one’s county. A sergeant remembered: “Tell the boys to avenge my death.”[ix]
It seems reasonable to think that in his final hours, Scott may have been visited in the field hospital by his regimental friends. Abdomen wounds were some of the most painful and dying could be hard with that type of injury — not to mention the other four or five wounds Scott had. Maybe a chaplain visited him to offer comfort or a prayer. Perhaps Surgeon Janes or another medical man gave him a heavy dose of opiates to dull the suffering. On April 17th, Scott died of his injuries, likely with a few friends by his side. His comrades buried him in a nearby orchard, later remembering the peach or cherry blossoms that ornamented the branches above his grave.
William Scott had escaped execution through the efforts of his friends and the leniency of Lincoln and McClellan. However, months later his “weary soul” entered eternity “where there shall be no death” to find “all peace and harmony.” The fearful reality of a public execution had forced Scott to consider and prepare for death in a way that few Civil War soldiers experienced. Coming out of that ordeal, he had determined to be “ready for death at any time.” Perhaps, when Death’s bullets found him at Lee’s Mill and the hours of suffering drew to an end, eternity was just a closing of the eyes. One final sleep for the weary sentinel and dutiful soldier.
The Vermonter, Volumes 30-31, 1925. Accessed via Google Books.
“Julian A. Scott” Congressional Medal of Honor Society, www.cmohs.org/recipients/julian-a-scott
Jonathan W. White, Midnight in American: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Pages 3-5, accessed through Google Books.
[i] Howard Coffin, Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War (Woodstock, The Countryman Press, 1993) Page 85.
[ii] Ibid., Page 86.
[iii] Ibid., Page 87.
[iv] Ibid., Page 88.
[v] Ibid., Page 88.
[vi] Ibid., Page 88.
[vii]Ibid., Page 89.
[viii] Ibid., Page 89.
[ix] Ibid., Page 96.