Throughout his life, President Lincoln developed a reputation for compassion and forgiveness. Regardless of how grievous the offense, or how vile the offender, Lincoln was known to exercise his right of presidential pardon quite often.
Perhaps one of the best known examples was in the case of “the sleeping sentinel.”
Private William Scott served in K Company in the 3rd Vermont Volunteers, and on the evening of August 31, 1861, he and his comrades were ordered to secure and guard a bridge in enemy territory that stretched across the Potomac River. That night, the officer of the guard made his usual midnight inspections and discovered that Scott was asleep at his post, an offense punishable by death during wartime.
The poor farm boy was immediately court-martialed and sentenced to be shot on September 9th. When Scott’s fellow soldiers were informed of his fate, they managed to quickly draw enough attention to the case that the public took note and lobbied for his punishment to be reduced.
Private Scott had several key things going for him. First, he’d been an exemplary soldier until this point; this was his first offense. Second, the young boy had actually volunteered for the fateful post to relieve a soldier who was even more exhausted from the recent fighting than he was. Third, and most importantly, the appeal reached the office of President Lincoln.
The Commander-in-Chief sent General McClellan a telegram with two instructions: strictly warn Private Scott against committing a foolish mistake again, and reinstate him to active duty.
William Scott’s life was spared by the pardon of a president.
Sadly, during a battle in McClellan’s unsuccessful Peninsular Campaign, Private Scott’s body was riddled with six bullets while attacking a fortified position. The poet Francis de Haes Janvier embellished and immortalized the young private in his famous work The Sleeping Sentinel:
While yet his voice grew tremulous and death bedimmed his eye,
He called his comrades to attest he had not feared to die;
And, in the last expiring breath, a prayer to Heaven he sent
That God, with His unfailing grace, would bless our president.
The words were almost certainly not spoken by the dying soldier, but nevertheless, they accurately convey the gratitude of any person who’s been pardoned of their crime.
The Farewell to Lincoln by Victor Searcher. Abingdon Press, 1965, Pages 106-107.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)