The Sleeping Sentinel


The Sleeping Sentinel was dramatic prose depicting the Union soldier in the 3rd Vermont Infantry, William Scott, who was sentenced to death for sleeping at his post. Both his death sentence and his pardon were read while he was facing the firing squad. No wonder the incident and Janvier's poem were adapted into a black and white movie in 1914, in which Abraham Lincoln dramatically arrives to deliver his pardon as the firing squad is taking aim (this didn't really happen). Scott was returned to fight, and died at the Battle of Lee's Mills in April, 1862.
The Sleeping Sentinel
William Scott, 3rd Vermont Infantry, convicted for sleeping on duty, 1860

This Poem was first read on Monday, January 19th, 1863, by Mr. James E. Murdoch, the celebrated elocutionist, to a select circle at the Executive Mansion, in the presence of the President and Mrs. Lincoln. On the evening of the same day he read it in the Senate Chamber of the United States, which was specially appropriated for the purpose, — the President and Mrs. Lincoln being again present, together with one of the largest and most distinguished audiences ever assembled in Washington. It was presented on this occasion anonymously, and produced a profound sensation.

'Twas in the sultry summer-time, as War's red 
records show, 
When patriot armies rose to meet a fratricidal 
foe — 
When, from the North, and East, and West, like 
the upheaving sea. 
Swept forth Columbia's sons, to make our country 
truly free. 

Within a prison's dismal walls, where shadows 
veiled decay — 
In fetters, on a heap of straw, a youthful soldier 

Heart-broken, hopeless, and forlorn, with short and 
feverish breath, 
He waited but the appointed hour to die a culprit's 

Yet, but a few brief weeks before, untroubled with 
a care. 

He roamed at will, and freely drew his native 
mountain air — 
Where sparkling streams leap mossy rocks, from 
many a woodland font. 
And waving elms, and grassy slopes, give beauty 
to Vermont! 

Where, dwelling in an humble cot, a tiller of the 
Encircled by a mother's love, he shared a father's 
Till, borne upon the wailing winds, his suffering 
country's cry 
Fired his young heart with fervent zeal, for her to 
live or die. 

Then left he all: — a few fond tears, by firmness 
half concealed, 
A blessing, and a parting prayer, and he was in 
the field — 
The field of strife, whose dews are blood, whose 
breezes War's hot breath, 
Whose fruits are garnered in the grave, whose 
husbandman is Death! 

Without a murmur, he endured a service new and 
hard ; 

But, wearied with a toilsome march, it chanced one 
night, on guard. 

He sank, exhausted, at his post, and the gray 
morning found 
His prostrate form — a sentinel, asleep, upon the 

So, in the silence of the night, aweary, on the 
Sank the disciples, watching near the suffering Son 
of God;— 

Yet, Jesus, with compassion moved, beheld their 
heavy eyes, 
And, though betrayed to ruthless foes, forgiving, 
bade them rise! 

But God is love, — and finite minds can faintly 
How gentle Mercy, in His rule, may with stern 
Justice blend; 

And this poor soldier, seized and bound, found 
none to justify. 
While War's inexorable law decreed that he must 

*Twas night. — In a secluded room, with measured 
tread, and slow, 
A statesman of commanding mien, paced gravely 
to and fro. 

Oppressed, he pondered on a land by civil discord 
On brothers armed in deadly strife: — it was the 

The woes of thirty millions filled his burdened 
heart with grief; 

Embattled hosts, on land and sea, acknowledged him 
their chief; 

And yet, amid the din of war, he heard the plaintive 
Of that poor soldier, as he lay in prison, doomed 
to die! 

'Twas morning. — On a tented field, and through 
the heated haze. 
Flashed back, from lines of burnished arms, the 
sun's effulgent blaze; 

While; from a sombre prison-house, seen slowly to 
A sad procession, o'er the sward, moved to a muffled 

And in the midst, with faltering step, and pale and 
anxious face, 
In manacles, between two guards, a soldier had his 

A youth — led out to die; — and yet, it was not death, 
but shame. 
That smote his gallant heart with dread, and shook 
his manly frame! 

Still on, before the marshalled ranks, the train 
pursued its way 
Up to the designated spot, whereon a coffin 
lay — 
His coffin ! And, with reeling brain, despairing— 
desolate — 
He took his station by its side, abandoned to his 

Then came across his wavering sight strange 
pictures in the air : — 
He saw his distant mountain home; he saw his 
parents there; 

He saw them bowed with hopeless grief, through 
fast-declining years ; 
He saw a nameless grave; and then, the vision 
closed — in tears! 

Yet, once again. In double file, advancing, then, 
he saw 

Twelve comrades, sternly set apart to execute the 
law — 

But saw no more : — his senses swam — deep dark- 
ness settled round — 

And, shuddering, he awaited now the fatal volley's 

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 

He came to save that stricken soul, now waking 
from despair ; 
And from a thousand voices rose a shout which 
rent the air! 

The pardoned soldier understood the tones of 
And, bounding from his fetters, blessed the hand 
that made him free! 

'Twas Spring. — Within a verdant vale, where 

"Warwick's crystal tide 
Reflected, o'er its peaceful breast, fair fields on 
either side — 

"Where birds and flowers combined to cheer a 
sylvan solitude — 
Two threatening armies, face to face, in fierce 
defiance stood! 

Two threatening armies ! One invoked by injured 
Liberty — 

Which bore above its patriot ranks the Symbol of 
the Free ; 

And one, a rebel horde, beneath a flaunting flag 
of bars, 

A fragment, torn by traitorous hands, from Free- 
dom's Stripes and Stars! 

A sudden burst of smoke and flame, from many a 
thundering gun, 
Proclaimed, along the echoing hills, the conflict had 
begun ; 

While shot and shell, athwart the stream with 
fiendish fury sped, 
To strew among the living lines, the dying and the 

Then, louder than the roaring storm, pealed forth 
the stern command,

*' Charge! soldiers, charge!" and, at the word, with 
shouts, a fearless band, 
Two hundred heroes from Vermont, rushed onward, 
through the flood. 
And upward, o'er the rising ground, they marked 
their way in blood! 

The smitten foe before them fled, in terror, from 
his post — 

While, unsustained, two hundred stood, to battle 
with a host ! 

Then, turning, as the rallying ranks, with murder- 
ous fire, replied, 

They bore the fallen o'er the field, and through the 
purple tide! 

The fallen! And the first who fell in that unequal 
Was he whom Mercy sped to save when Justice 
claimed his life —  

The pardoned soldier! And, while yet the conflict 
raged around — 
While yet his life-blood ebbed away through every 
gaping wound — 

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 his last expiring breath, a prayer to heaven 
was sent — 

That God, with His unfailing grace, would bless 
our President! 


You may also enjoy reading Ambrose Bierce's story in which the sentry falls asleep on duty, A Horseman in the Sky and its accompanying Study Guide



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