The night of 31st August 1861 found Private Luke Ferriter of the 3rd Vermont Infantry standing guard at the Chain Bridge on the Potomac river. He was sharing his sentry duty with two other men from the regiment, with each taking a two-hour shift. At midnight it was Luke’s turn to grab four hours of fitful rest in the small party’s makeshift brush hut. As he bedded down, the Irish emigrant couldn’t have imagined how the events that followed would come to impact the remainder of his life. The private who sleepily staggered out of the hut to take Luke’s place as sentry was a young man called William Scott. Less than an hour after Luke turned in Scott would be found asleep at his post, an offence punishable by death. His subsequent court-martial and the story of an intervention by Abraham Lincoln would become immortalised in poem, prose and ultimately film, as the legend of the ‘Sleeping Sentinel’ was born. (1)
Luke Ferriter was born around 1844, possibly in Teeravane near Ballyferriter in Co. Kerry. He and his family emigrated to the United States in the mid-1850s, eventually settling in Brattleboro, Vermont where Luke’s father worked on the railroad. When the war arrived in 1861 the Irishman was fully caught up in the enlistment fever that was then sweeping the country. However, his desire to join up was frustrated by both his parents wishes and his prohibitively young age. Unperturbed, the 17-year-old ran away from home and walked the thirty-six miles to Springfield, where he joined the Union army under the assumed name of Charles L. Smith. Now after just a few short months service, he was coming face to face with the harsh realities of military law. (2)
The first Luke knew about William Scott falling asleep that night was when he heard an officer shouting outside the hut. ‘Your guard has gone to sleep and we have him under arrest’ he was told. Luke had to go back on watch as his young companion was led away. The next morning both he and the Corporal who had been on duty with them had to give evidence at Scott’s court-martial. There was no defence, and Scott was quickly sentenced to death, with the execution set for 8th September. Ferriter takes up the story:
‘The case at once threw the camp into commotion, and attracted attention far and wide, for it was the first case of the kind to come up since the war had begun…Nobody knew whether the penalty would be enforced, but they expected it would be. The sentence was approved by General Smith. Chaplain Parmelee of our regiment at once interested himself in the case, and a petition was signed and sent to Washington. I don’t know whether it ever reached Lincoln, but on the eve of Sept. 8, the report reached camp that the President had pardoned our comrade Scott.’ (3)
Ferriter remembered that despite reports of the pardon reaching camp the execution proceedings continued. The following morning companies from the 3rd Vermont and other units were drawn up in a hollow square. Luke was one of the men selected to carry out the sentence:
‘I was so unlucky as to be drawn as one of the men to do the shooting. There were handed out six blank cartridges and one loaded one, all of which were to be shot, so no one would know who fired the fatal bullet. The troops fell in and we arranged ourselves near the stage road between Georgetown and Halifax. We of the guard stood on a little elevation of land, and between us and the point of execution lay a little valley across which we were to shoot. The prisoner Scott was led out and a white cap pulled over his head. He was trembling, and a white shield was sewed over his heart as a target for the guard. We were all shaking in nervousness at the duty before us, when suddenly the adjutant stepped forward and read the pardon.’ (4)
The pardon spared the life of William Scott, but the Vermonter would not survive the war- he was killed in action early in 1862. Today he is remembered with a memorial near the site of his former home in Groton. Luke Ferriter served with the 3rd Vermont throughout the conflict, and was wounded at Spotsylvania on 12th May 1864. He would eventually rise to the rank of Sergeant before being mustered out of service on 11th July 1865. Still a young man, he married for the first time in 1867, when Ellen Martin became his wife. She passed away in 1871 and two years later Luke married again, this time tying the knot with Eliza Fenton. They spent over half a century together before Eliza’s death in 1927. In his working life Luke spent many years with Leonard & Roess cigarmakers and later the Dunham Brothers company, from where he retired in the late 1920s. He was a longstanding member of Brattleboro’s Irish community, and was a member of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church. Throughout his life Luke remained proud of his Civil War service; he was actively engaged in the Sedgwick Post of the Grand Army of the Republic and for a time served as its Commander. His longevity meant that as the years passed he was also one of the last veterans to ride in Brattleboro’s Memorial Day parade. (5)
Almost as soon as it had occurred the story of the Sleeping Sentinel captivated the public imagination. In 1863 Francis De Haes Janvier published a poem of that title, which was supposedly first read on 19th January 1863 in the presence of the President and Mrs. Lincoln. You can find the full poem here. One of the verses recounts the moment when Scott fell asleep:
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 ground! (6)
The story of the Sleeping Sentinel and Abraham Lincoln’s role in the case long outlived the war; ‘The Sleeping Sentinel’ was even made into a silent movie in 1914. However as fact and myth became intermingled controversy as to Lincoln’s actual role in the pardon increased. Although Lincoln was aware of the case in 1861, it was unclear as to the extent of his personal intervention. When a 1920s biographer of Lincoln, the Rev. Dr. William E. Barton, claimed that Lincoln had not personally issued Scott’s pardon, it prompted and aged Luke Ferriter to enter the fray and state in no uncertain terms that it was Lincoln who had granted Scott’s reprieve. The ‘Scott-Lincoln’ controversy occupied quite a number of column inches around New England and New York in 1926; papers like The Boston Herald ran with headlines highlighting the two men’s disagreement: ‘SAYS DR. BARTON QUIBBLES ON SCOTT- Ferriter Insists Lincoln Saved Condemned Man’. Eventually Barton decided to travel to Brattleboro to discuss his research and the event with Ferriter. This visit was also covered by newspapers like the Herald, who reported it under the banner: ‘FOE AND FRIEND OF SCOTT STORY MEET FOR TALK- Dr. Barton Calls on Luke Ferriter, 83-year-old Civil War Veteran- BOTH AVOID DEBATE ON LINCOLN PARDON- Historian Asserts Host is Honest Man But Saga Is “Sugary Lie”.’ (7)
The issue as to Lincoln’s involvement in the pardon was never fully resolved and although the President was undoubtedly aware of the Scott case it remains unclear if he directly instructed that the man be spared- the pardon itself was issued by General McClellan. One aspect of Luke’s memory of events in 1861 does seem doubtful, and that is that Lincoln personally appeared on the scene at the execution to intercede on Scott’s behalf. Whatever the precise sequence of events surrounding the case, which will probably never be known, the story of the Sleeping Sentinel is one of the enduring legends which grew out of the Civil War. Luke Ferriter was a key player in that story and it would remain important to him throughout his long life. The long-lived Irishman died at his home on 12 State Street, Brattleboro on the 22nd June 1930 as a result of a heart attack while suffering from a bronchial cold. He left behind four children, Martin, James, John and Catherine, as well as five grandchildren. He rests today in Saint Michael’s Cemetery in the town. (8)
*With thanks to friend of the site Peter Patten for his assistance in attempting to locate Luke’s origins in Ireland.
(1) Cabot 1922: 773-4, Glover 1936: 82-83, New England Historical Society; (2) Springfield Republican 23rd June 1930, Bubnash Walker 2000, Glover 1936 82; (3) Glover 1936: 82-83; (4) Ibid. 83-84; (5) Cabot 1922: 774, Vermont Adjutant and Inspector General 1892: 76, Vermont Vital Records, Springfield Republican 23rd June 1930; (6) De Haes Janvier 1863:11; (7) Boston Herald 31st August 1926, Boston Herald 9th September 1926; (8) Vermont in the Civil War, Springfield Republican 23rd June 1930, Luke Ferriter Find A Grave Memorial;
References & Further Reading
Boston Herald 31st August 1926. Says Dr. Barton Quibbles on Scott.
Boston Herald 9th September 1926. Foe and Friend of Scott Story Meet for Talk.
Springfield Republican 23rd June 1930. Man Connected with Noted Civil War Episode Dead.
Cabot, Mary C. 1922. Annals of Brattleboro 1681-1895, Volume 2.
De Haes Janvier, Francis 1863. The Sleeping Sentinel.
Glover, Waldo F. 1936. Abraham Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel of Vermont.
Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection nd. Reminiscences About Abraham Lincoln: Newspaper Clippings, Accounts and Memories of those whose Lives included and Encounter with the 16th President of the United States. Volume covering surnames beginning with Fa-Fi.
Vermont Adjutant and Inspector General 1892. Revised Roster of Vermont Volunteers and Lists of Vermonters who Served in the Army and Navy of the United States during the War of Rebellion 1861-66.
Vermont Vital Records, 1720- 1908 (Ancestry.com).