Lincoln’s Pardon of a Vermont Soldier During the Civil War

The Civil War had only recently begun when a young man by the name of William Scott joined the Union Army along with 77 of his fellow citizens from Groton, Vermont. He was 22 years old, and his life was about to get very complicated.

On August 31, 1861, he volunteered for Picket Duty when one of his fellow soldiers became ill. Picket Duty was to take the watch on the front lines, especially at night. It is the first line of defense to watch for any enemy efforts to attack your unit. As anyone who has been in the military knows, especially those who have been in combat, this is a very important duty. But we also know that it is a difficult duty, as it involves staying alert and ready when one might be very tired after a long day. Staying awake can be a challenge when you are out there alone, remaining silent in order to perceive the slightest movement or sound out there in the dark.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/David Ohmer

Scott had done Picket Duty the night before as well. One can imagine that having stayed awake most of that night then doing whatever his unit did in terms of moving toward enemy territory, the next potential battle, that he was tired, very tired. Well, all of that came together on the night of August 31. While he was on Picket Duty for a friend, he fell asleep and was caught sleeping by an officer. During wartime, this is a serious offense. So serious that Scott was Court Martialed, found guilty and sentenced to death.

Photo: Wikipedia

His regiment, his friends from Vermont, found this to be too harsh and circulated a petition on behalf of Scott. This is where the story takes on a bit of the element of legend. Apparently the petition reached Abraham Lincoln on September 7th, two days before Scott was to be executed for sleeping on guard duty. Lincoln decided to pardon Scott, and the message was sent by document to Scott’s unit. His execution was cancelled, and he was returned to his unit. The story has a sad ending though. On April 16, 1862, just eight months after the pardon, Scott was severely wounded in a battle at Warwick Creek, Virginia, and died of his wounds the next day.

Scott’s story took on the life of legend when a poem was written about the pardon that had Abraham Lincoln pulling up in a carriage at the last moment to declare his pardon personally just moments before the execution was to take place. No one could believe that a simple soldier from Vermont would get the attention of the President in the middle of the Civil War for such a matter.

Photo: Wikipedia/Alexander Gardner

But 100 years later, in 1997, the original documents of the Court Martial and the pardon were found, confirming the story of the pardon.

Wars are told by the great moments of victory and loss, but history is made up of millions of small stories that go untold. This is one of those stories. William Scott was a patriot who volunteered to fight to save the union. He fell asleep on Picket Duty and was sentenced to death. We could go on for hours about the fairness or the injustice of this, but we cannot change the facts. He was to be executed for falling asleep, and he was saved by the pardon of Abraham Lincoln.

His story did not change the direction of the war. It was not a momentous event in the eyes of history, but a great man, Abraham Lincoln, saved the life of this common man, out of his own compassion and the stroke of his pen.

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