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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Abraham Lincoln's Last-Minute Pardon of a Soldier Sentenced to Die

On a foggy Monday morning, September 9, 1861, a trembling young soldier in the Union Army awaited his execution by firing squad. Private William Scott of the 3rd Vermont Infantry had fallen asleep while on Picket Duty, an offense punishable by death. Instead of standing watch over his regiment against a surprise attack, a post for which he had volunteered because a friend had fallen ill, Scott had failed his fellow soldiers by sleeping on the job. After being arrested and court-martialed, Scott was sentenced to death just nine days after the incident.


But on the morning of the execution, instead of being shot, Scott was pardoned. Just minutes before being killed, Scott received word that his crime had been forgiven by President Abraham Lincoln, who had heard about the ordeal just two days prior. This story, which inspired the black-and-white silent film in 1914 entitled The Sleeping Sentinel, was also a source of inspiration for the great Chicago revivalist Dwight L. Moody.


As a fellow Illinoisan and Republican, Moody was a supporter of Lincoln during his career. In fact, early in 1861, Lincoln had visited Moody’s church on his way to Washington after being elected.[1] However, after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, like so many other Northern ministers, Moody increasingly framed Lincoln as an example of virtue and servanthood for the rest of the nation. Moody was especially taken with the story of William Scott’s presidential pardon. Although Scott's fellow soldiers had petitioned for clemency on his behalf, it was the action of Scott's younger sister that inspired Moody the most. In a sermon on Christ’s reading of the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4:18 (“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives”), Moody used Lincoln’s kindness as a vivid picture of the saving gospel. He preached,


“During the war I remember of a young man not twenty, who was courtmartialed, down in the front, and sentenced to be shot. The story was this: The young fellow had enlisted. He was not obliged to, but he went off with another young man. They were what we would call ‘chums.’ One night this companion was ordered out on picket duty, and he asked the young man to go for him. The next night he was ordered out himself; and having been awake two nights, and not being used to it, fell asleep at his post, and for the offense he was tried and sentenced to death. It was right after the order issued by the President that no interference would be allowed in cases of this kind. This sort of thing had been too frequent, and it must be stopped.


"When the news reached the father and mother in Vermont it nearly broke their hearts. The thought that their son should be shot was too great for them. They had no hope that he would be saved by anything they could do. But they had a little daughter who had read the life of Abraham Lincoln, and knew how he loved his own children, and she said: ‘If Abraham knew how my father and mother loved my brother he wouldn’t let him be shot.’ That little girl thought this over, and made up her mind to see the President. She went to the White House, and the sentinel, when he saw her imploring looks, passed her in, and when she came up to the door and told the private secretary that she wanted to see the President, he could not refuse her.


“She came into the chamber and found Abraham Lincoln surrounded by his generals and counselors, and when he saw the little country girl he asked her what she wanted. The little maid told her plain, simple story — how her brother, whom her mother and father loved very dearly, had been sentenced to be shot. How they were mourning for him, and if he was to die in that way it would break their hearts. The President’s heart was touched with compassion, and he immediately sent a dispatch canceling the sentence and giving the boy a parole so that he could come home and see that father and mother.


“I just tell you this to show you how Abraham Lincoln’s heart was moved by compassion for the sorrow of that father and mother; and if he showed so much, do you think the Son of God will not have compassion upon you, sinner, if you only take that crushed, bruised heart to Him? He will heal it. Have you got a drunken husband? Go tell him. He can make him a blessing to the Church and to the world. Have you a profligate son? Go take your story to Him, and He will comfort you, and bind up and heal your sorrow. What a blessing it is to have such a Saviour. He has been sent to heal the broken-hearted. May the text, if the sermon doesn’t, reach every one here tonight, and may every crushed, broken, and bruised heart be brought to that Saviour, and they will hear His comforting words. He will comfort you, as a mother comforts her child, if you will only come in prayer and lay all your burdens before Him.”[2]


           After John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln on Good Friday in 1865, comparisons between Jesus Christ and Lincoln, “our country’s Savior,” were not out of the ordinary.[3] Nevertheless, for the great soul-winner Dwight Moody, very few events in Lincoln’s life illustrated the compassion and forgiveness and comfort of Christ’s salvation quite like the President’s last-minute pardon of a lowly private in the early days of the war in 1861. Indeed, the salvation of the republic itself was only secondary to the salvation of one’s soul. Moody reminded his hearers, “Of, if there is a broken heart here tonight, bring it to Jesus, and I tell you upon authority He will heal you. He has said he will bind your wounds up — not only that, He will heal them.”[4]

[1] Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and the Moral Order in America 1820–1920, 82.

[2] The Best of D. L. Moody: Sixteen Sermons by the Great Evangelist, ed. Wilbur M. Smith, 86–87.


[3] See David B. Chesebrough, "No Sorrow Like Our Sorrow": Northern Protestant Ministers and the Assassination of Lincoln (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1994).


[4] The Best of D. L. Moody: Sixteen Sermons by the Great Evangelist, ed. Wilbur M. Smith, 86.

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