This Place in History: The Sleeping Sentinel

Vermont Historical Society

GROTON, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History’, we’re in Groton, Vt. with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“[This] has got all the parts of this great 19th-century romantic tale. But, it’s all true. William Scott was a young man born on a farm pretty much right here in Groton. Like most young men from Vermont, [he] enlisted in the Union Cause for the Civil War in 1861. So, he was in Company K of the 3rd Vermont Volunteers. He was sent down for the defense of Washington D.C.,” began Perkins.

“Soon after they got there, his company was assigned to guard duty of the Chain Bridge. There was this big bridge across the Potomac River. What we have to remember about the Civil War is our nation’s capital Washington D.C. was right on the border of where this war is being fought. At the time, Virginia was in the Confederacy’s hands. Of course, the Battle of Bull Run was lost and the Union was reeling. So, this was a very important place to have a bridge that needed to be guarded.”

“He had volunteered to do two nights of sentry duty in a row because one of his comrades was sick. He ended up falling asleep. But falling asleep, at this time, guarding something like this, that was punishable by death,” explained Perkins.

“Officers came to his aid and said we need to do something about this. But, the military rules were very strict. It’s not like anyone could just pardon him. Ultimately word got to Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States. And the president pardoned William Scott. This is early in the war. It becomes a big [public relations] thing. It turned out that they actually marched him out, put the blindfold on him and got ready for the firing squad before the order of pardon was read,” said Perkins.

“He unfortunately went on to die at the Battle of Lee’s Mills, quite heroically, pulling some of his company members back across the Warwick River. He was shot multiple times. He died later that day. This created a whole mythology around William Scott and you get this title, The Sleeping Sentinel. Quickly, you started to get news stories and I even have an epic poem here by Francis de Haes Janvier.”

“Part of the popular story is that President Lincoln got in his carriage and rushed down to where the execution was to take place and pardoned him himself. So, this finds its way into this poem: “Then suddenly was heard the noise of steeds and wheels approach. And, rolling through a cloud of dust, appeared a stately coach. On, past the guards and through the field, its rapid course was bent. Till halting ‘mid the lines was seen the nation’s president.”

“I encourage everyone to go look up the poem, read it. It’s great. This story was so popular it became a silent film in 1914. So, a lot of fame to poor William Scott who did die heroically during the Civil War. And the state of Vermont dedicated Route 302 as the William Scott Memorial Highway,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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