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Gilbert: William and Julian Scott

04/13/12 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) We’re in the midst of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War, which raged for four years, from April 1861 to April 1865. Here’s commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert with the dramatic stories of two Vermont soldiers who were not related, but who shared the same last name.

(Gilbert) A hundred and fifty years ago the fates of William Scott and Julian Scott crossed in a swampy region of Virginia called Lee’s Mills, southwest of the Confederate capital of Richmond. The Battle of Lee’s Mills was part of Union General George McClellan’s attempt to go around the Confederate army in northern Virginia and capture Richmond by moving his entire army by boat southeast from Washington, landing it at the very tip of the Virginia peninsula, and then moving northwest, past Yorktown and Williamsburg, up the length of the peninsula. (This war, which the Confederates considered a war of independence, was often fought where the American Revolution had been fought.) The Peninsula Campaign was the war’s first major offensive in the East. Union forces were not successful either at Lee’s Mills or in the Peninsula Campaign as a whole.

Just seven months earlier twenty-three-year-old William Scott had been sentenced to be executed by firing squad for falling asleep on duty while guarding a bridge just outside Washington. The so-called “sleeping sentinel” had left his home in Groton, Vermont just a month before. But President Lincoln had pardoned him. “I cannot think of going into eternity,” Lincoln said, “with the blood of that poor young man on my skirts. It is not to be wondered at that a boy, raised on a farm, probably in the habit of going to bed at dark, should, when required to watch, fall asleep; and I cannot consent to shooting him for such an act.”

The Confederates had anticipated an attack up the peninsula and had prepared a strong defensive line behind the modest Warwick River. The 192 men of the Third Vermont Volunteers were ordered to advance across the river and charge the well-fortified enemy. They included William Scott. Vermont Civil War historian Howard Coffin writes that Scott was hit just as the first soldiers reached dry land on the far side. Some brave comrade carried him back across the river. One soldier from Lamoille County recalled, “It was just like sap boiling in that stream, the bullets fell so thick.” By the time they reached the relative safety of the trees, Scott had been wounded either five or six times. There was nothing doctors could do. Scott died the next morning.

The soldier whom Lincoln had saved from an ignominious death in front of a firing squad had given for his country what the President would call at Gettysburg, “the last full measure of devotion.”

Also amidst those soldiers who charged across that bloody stream was Julian Scott, a sixteen-year-old drummer boy from Johnson. When casualties mounted and they were ordered to withdraw, he crossed the stream repeatedly to bring wounded soldiers back to safety. For his actions, he became the first Vermonter to receive the Medal of Honor.

In the years following the war, Julian Scott would paint some of the finest Civil War paintings anywhere, including the massive “Battle of Cedar Creek,” which hangs today in the State House in Montpelier.
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