Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Men Who Made the Story Famous
Sergeant Isaac W. Ambler

One of the most colorful characters to meet William Scott was "the drill sergeant from Maine, Isaac W. Ambler.

Ambler was British-American, a preacher, reformed drunkard, drill sergeant and occasional author who recollected in his writing after the war his meeting with William Scott.

Ambler was abandoned as a child in England by his father after the early death of his mother. He spent his early years with his grandmother in a almshouse. He worked as a coal minor while still a child and later, when he was old enough, he joined the English army. He was a good student of military tactics but later deserted and escaped to America where he married and lived in Maine.

Ambler spent his time moving from town to town between Maine and Massachusetts. At some point, Ambler stopped drinking and became a part-time minister and preached abstinence. In Biddeford, Maine, he began to write his own biography with the idea of using the proceeds from the sale of his book to educate himself.

While Ambler was peddling his book in Boston, the Civil War broke out. With his knowledge of war, Ambler became an enthusiastic supporter of the Northern cause and urged men to enlist into the Union army. He also became a free-lance drill-master in Massachusetts.

His friends in Maine heard of his recruiting successes in Boston and urged him to return to Maine and help begin enlisting men for the Sixth Maine regiment. He became a self-appointed drill-master for the troops and accompanied them to the battle field.

After arriving at Chain Bridge, Ambler and his Maine recruits were formed into part of General Smith's brigade. It was at Chain Bridge that Ambler appointed himself not only drill-master to the new soldiers, but also as assistant chaplain and military handy man. He preached regular sermons and became a spiritual adviser to General Scott's brigade. Scott no doubt listened to his sermons and according to Ambler, they met together in the tent where Scott was confined after his court-martial.

Scott was tearful and obviously emotionally spent from the ordeal. In his writing, Ambler remembered Scott admitting through tears ..."that if I must be shot, Oh God, thy will be done."

Ambler tried to console the frightened soldier but became distraught himself over Scott's pending execution. He had earlier preached a sermon concerning the pending fate of the unlucky Vermont volunteer to the men and recalled the gloom that settled over the crowd of soldiers gathered around him.

"We knew he was a good soldier and never would have slept on his post if he had not been exhausted from heavy marching and overwork."

When the day of Scott's execution came, orders were given for twelve muskets to be placed in position, six to be loaded with live ammunition and six with blanks. Twelve men were detailed for the execution squad. Each soldier would select a gun without knowing which guns contained the blanks and which were loaded with ammunition.

The men filed out, six in a line and Scott in the center. Ambler walked beside Scott as they marched out into the execution square. Scott wore a piece of white cloth over his jacket to assist the gunmen in aiming directly at his heart. As they marched, Ambler spoke rapidly to Scott and encouraged him to die with soldierly dignity and as a Christian. Scott walked with his head down and held a bible. He kept nervously turning one thumb over the other as he walked with Ambler at his side.

In Ambler's view, an American soldier such as Scott should die as an English soldier would.

"I had seen English soldiers kneel on their coffins and open their bosoms with their own hands until six bullets pierced them and fall headlong into their coffins. I was anxious that William should stand as firm."

The spot where Scott was to die was formed into an open triangle of about ten thousand men, its open point facing into Virginia. Scott faced the open point. Ambler stood next to him as the charges were read and continued to encourage him until he had to step aside as the twelve men got into position to fire. Scott looked towards Virginia, then at Ambler and finally lowered his head.

Ambler's recollection of what happened next may have been muddled with Janvier's poetic version but he told a good story.

A horseman came galloping into the square waving his sword in the air. He dashed into the crowd and handed a dispatch to an orderly who passed it to the officer in charge. The officer then read the full pardon given by Lincoln while the soldiers cheered wildly.

When Scott heard the pardon, he ran to Ambler and they embraced, crying as Ambler put it, like babies.

In a later edition of Ambler's book, printed in 1883, a testimonial appeared written by Isaac Frazier of the Sixth Maine Regiment and one of the men assigned to execute Scott. He wrote of the incident:

"Being a senior captain of the regiment, I became a member of that court-martial and was the only member who was not in favor of the enforcement of the army law, "To be shot dead"; and I think I am now the only survivor of that body. Knowing that fatigue, added to several days of physical suffering, had rendered the otherwise able soldier unfit for the tedious night-watch, I believed that some other punishment was advisable. The pitying love which our martyred Lincoln extended to the soldier is well portrayed in the book, and the young man's gratitude to him and his devotion to his country was attested at Warwick Creek with the rendering of his young life."

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Men Who Made the Story Famous
Dr. George T. Stevens

One of the first books to come out in post Civil War writings was "Three Years in the Sixth Corps" by Dr. George T. Stevens, a surgeon assigned to the 77th New York Regiment.

Dr. Stevens was assigned to Gen. Smith's division, part of the 77th New York, during the first winter of the war. Through most of the Civil War, the 77th New York combined with the regiments that formed the Vermont Brigade became known as the Sixth Corps.

Dr. Stevens was closely associated with the Vermont troops and his account of Pvt. William Scott was a soldier's story of the court-martial and pardon. His story was largely based on what he heard from the soldiers who witnessed Scott's moment of glory and eventual tragedy.

In his book, Stevens recounts sympathetically the events that lead up to the court-martial. Scott was found asleep on guard duty and his error could have cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers. Scott however, being a Vermont farm boy was new to army life and unaccustomed to staying awake at night.

Stevens describes the execution scene as a breathless moment in time. In the quiet Fall morning in the Virginia hills, the execution squad slowly aimed their muskets on their fellow soldier and waited for the word to fire. But at the last moment, another paper was read before the troops. The paper was a pardon from President Lincoln. Stevens describes the joy the pardon gave the troops and the national inspiration the pardon gave Lincoln. The President was a hero to the common soldier and a leader to be trusted.

The pardon of Private Scott by Lincoln was a first at the beginning of the Civil War. Scott's case gained national interest because at the beginning of America's deadliest war, one soldier's life was regarded with far more value than later when thousands would die in one battle. Scott's fault at guard duty and its consequences became an incident that held the general acceptance of the war in question. The newspaper reports at that time and descriptions of Scott's court-martial by writers after the war, were far more about Lincoln's humanity as a leader than about the soldier from Vermont who slept through his watch.

Stevens wrote that President Lincoln worried his signed pardon would not reach the camp in time to save Scott. To ensure the pardon reached its destination, Lincoln is said to have personally ridden by carriage to the camp to carry out the pardon.

Stevens wrote that after the pardon, Scott told his friends he would prove to the President he was not afraid to die. At Lee's Mill where 200 Union soldiers crossed the swamp in a bloody rush on the fortified Confederate troops, Scott was in the front of the charge and one of the first to be cut down by musket fire. He died a day later and Stevens wrote that his comrades mourned his loss but his glorious death in battle overshadowed the sad fate he narrowly escaped if not for the compassion of President Lincoln.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Men Who Made the Story Famous
Francis de Hayes Janvier
and James Murdoch

The story of the Sleeping Sentinel would become a political spin story much as the stories of John Bradley, one of the flag raisers at Iwo Jima during WWII and more recently, the fictionalized accounts of Jessica Lynch's rescue and Pat Tillman death by friendly fire. The cost of the Civil War needed the nation's approval and romantic stories loosely woven around actual incidents made it possible to get the support needed to continue the war effort.

The newspaper accounts of Scott's pardon helped boost Lincoln's image as a benevolent leader during the beginnings of the Civil War. To dramatize the story's message, Victorian era America used a combination of melodramatic story-telling loosely woven around fact. To get the story to the people, one-person stage performances were popular entertainment and inexpensive to produce. Stand-up oratory, often called platform performances were easy to move to different venues and cost little for a struggling government, anchored by the costs of war. The platform performances of the Civil War consisted largely of poetry readings by popular elocutionists who added their own sense of drama to the prose. Elocutionists could move an entire audience to patriotic cheers and sway a policy in favor of the war effort.

Francis de Hayes Janvier at the time of the Civil War wrote many now forgotten pieces that were read at recitals, town halls, and even at battle front encampments. He penned the poem "The Sleeping Sentinel" shortly after Scott was killed.
The poem was widely circulated in newspapers and became a favorite of professional elocutionists and amateur readers.

James Murdoch, a celebrated elocutionist read the poem
in 1863 at the Executive Mansion and on the same day, before the Senate Chamber. Mr and Mrs Lincoln were present at both readings.

Murdoch's performances were legendary and his recitation of the poem "The Sleeping Sentinel" in his clear, musical voice caused a sensation. Janvier's poem that drew from Scott's hardscrabble Vermont farm life to the sensational pardon by the President and finally Scott's tragic end at Lee's Mill was pure dramatic entertainment for an audience trying to make sense of a severed nation.

The Men Who Made the Story Famous

William Scott's story became romanticized long after the Civil War. The event played into an endorsement of Lincoln's presidency during a critical beginning of a controversial war. The story also underscored the bravery and heroism of the Union soldiers and Scott's home state of Vermont.

In the movie "Flags of Our Fathers", three GI's at Iwo Jima were paraded around the nation as heros because of a picture immortalizing them raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi.

Later in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch were honored as brave heros and gun blazing soldiers. Their heroism was fictionalized and romanticized by the media to promote the war effort and the decisions of America's leaders.

By his little contribution in allowing a sick Vermont soldier to get some rest while he did double-duty, William Scott became one of those unlikely and slightly embarrassed heros.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Faithful Unto Death
The Assault at Lee's Mills

The Federal troops marched down the peninsula but ended up lost much of the time due to their generals' ignorance of the terrain. General McClellan arrived on April 3rd and the army advanced towards Yorktown. They split their ranks with one column led by McClellan and the other by Smith.

The Confederates offered little resistance until the Federals reached Warwick Creek. The southerners hid behind redoubts and rife pits that were built upon bluffs overlooking Warwick Creek. The stream had been damned up for defense by the Confederates. The damns now provided a series of ponds that would be difficult to cross. The few places that could be crossed were defended by Confederate artillery.

McClellan believed the Confederates were massed behind these fortifications and by penetrating them, the Federals would win the war.

McClellan consulted with his generals and decided on one of the redoubts on Warwick Creek between Lee's Mills and Wynn's Mills. Opposite the fortification was the Garrow Farm, a burned out ruin that provided a clearing and possible entry to the redoubt.

The orders given to General Smith from McClellan were to stop the enemy's work on the fortress. To accomplish this, McClellan ordered Smith to send in a small force of his men in to access the strength of the Confederates and the lay of the land.

The next day after receiving the orders, Smith began firing his artillery at the fortress to provide cover and then sent in his first assault of the Army of the Potomac in Confederate territory. This assault was made by four companies of the Third Vermont.

The Vermonters ran out of the woods and unclasped their cartridge belts and held them above their heads as they charged into the waist-high creek while the Confederates fired repeatedly at them from their rifle pits in front of the fortress.

As the Vermonters approached and the artillery pounded the rifle pits, the Confederates abandoned the trenches and ran for cover behind the redoubts. The Third Vermont troops cheered and waved handkerchiefs as a sign of victory at taking the rifle pits and to also signal for reinforcements.

But the reinforcements did not come. For another thirty minutes the Third Vermont maintained their position in the captured rifle pits. That was enough time for the Confederates to regroup and begin a counter-attack on the rifle pits below them.

The Vermonters discovered that in crossing the creek, their ammunition had been ruined by water. Outnumbered by both guns and heavy artillery at close range from the redoubts, they took heavy losses in the retreat back across the creek. There were close to 200 men in the attack. Only half of them survived. One of the casualties was William Scott.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Faithful Unto Death
A Soldier's Life is a Dog's Life

After Scott's celebrated pardon, life for him and the other Vermont soldiers would become a dreary and uncomfortable existence far worse than the back-breaking farm work they had left behind. The new camp located about 5 miles into the Confederate lines was now known as Camp Griffin.

The fourth, fifth and sixth Vermont Regiments arrived from the North and together with the second and third Regiments now formed what would be called the Vermont Brigade.

The Winter of 1861 ravaged the Vermont soldiers. Inadequate provisions, unsanitary conditions and disease killed many of them long before they would ever see combat. For five months, the brigade led a monotonous life of drilling and inactivity and a miserable life of preparing for the rumored advance towards Richmond. The soldier's life of day-to-day sameness led to the famous dispatches from Washington, "All Quiet On The Potomac".

Finally, in March of 1862, the order came to break camp and begin the march south.

During this time, there is little known of Scott's life. A few of his letters exist. One of them suggests a premonition of his death.

"By the hand of God, I shall some day outride the storms of affliction and land our soul on the other side of Jordan and our weary souls home to rest...." William Scott, Oct 13, 1861

In another letter postmarked from his position near Alexandria which was given the name "Camp Misery", Scott wrote of the conditions there.

"It is very cold and wet. The mud is awfully deep. The night we came from Flint Hill it rained all night. It rained like everything and we never slept a wink all night. A soldier's life is nothing more or less than a dog's life.

....and now I must bid you a long farewell....the girls here in Virginia. There are no girls. I haven't seen but one or two white girls since I have been here, but there are black ones enough."

This letter would be his last. On the following day, he and the Federal troops were transported by boat down the Potomac River into the Chesapeake Bay to Hampton to begin what was later known as the Peninsula Campaign. The way to Richmond led up a narrow pennisula between the York and the James Rivers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lincoln And The Sleeping Sentinel
How the Newspapers Picked Up The Story

The pardon of William Scott became popular news. Prior to the presidential pardon, newspapers in Boston and New York City had commented on the decision to execute the boy for sleeping at his post so close to enemy territory. The pardon of the Vermont private was published throughout the North and the story became a popular tribute to the compassion of the President.

The story of Scott's pardon was picked up in Philadelphia, Boston, New York City and Washington. Newspapers throughout the state of Vermont carried the story and in Groton, Scott's story had a profound impact on the people living there. President Lincoln became something of a savior or saint to most people living in Groton at the beginning of the Civil War.

A classmate of Scott's recalled that she was with his grieving mother the day of the execution and when the story broke, Scott's parents and the town of Groton were overjoyed over Scott's pardon and were deeply moved by President Lincoln's personal order to spare their son.

So grateful were Scott's parents, that Thomas Scott somehow managed to make his way to the White House and thank the President for pardoning William and was later able to visit his sons at the front.

Although it is not known if Thomas Scott made his visit to the front lines before or after William Scott's death at Lee's Mills, Mr. Scott was able to visit his sons in an area where visitors to the front were forbidden. When asked how he could stay with his sons when other family visitors were ordered to leave, Mr. Scott said he had received a pass from President Lincoln.

There is no record of Mr. Scott's visit to the White House but Scott recollected in later years that when he met the President to thank him, Lincoln replied that it was always better to save a life than to destroy it.

When Scott's father told Lincoln that all his boys were in the service, the President directed that a pass be issued to him to visit his sons. On the way out, Lincoln asked Scott how he was going to get along on the farm with no help from his boys. The old man replied that he would "get along in some way or other". As he was about to leave, Lincoln slipped him a ten-dollar bill.