“’Twas in the sultry summer-time, as war’s red records show,
When patriot armies rose to meet a fratricidal foe.”
There was a time when poetry was not the hobby of an inbred coterie. Non-poets read it for inspiration and solace, and some even wrote it. Narrative poems were always popular. Americans declaimed story-poems from stages and by the fireside. Our fifth-grade teacher had us memorize the opening stanzas of “The Village Blacksmith.”
The lines at the top are from “The Sleeping Sentinel” by a long-forgotten poet, Francis De Haes Janvier (1817-1885). It appeared in his 1866 collection Patriotic Poems, which he dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Janvier based his poem on the story of Private William Scott of Company K, 3rd Vermont Infantry. Twenty-three years old, Scott fell asleep while on picket duty near Fort Marcy, Virginia, on the night of September 3, 1861. Scott was court-martialed and sentenced two days later to be executed. On September 9, President Lincoln pardoned him. Seven months after the pardon, on April 16, 1862, Scott was fatally wounded during the Battle of Lee’s Mill in Virginia.
On this date, January 19, in 1863, “The Sleeping Sentinel” was recited in the U.S. Senate Chamber by the actor James E. Murdoch. In attendance were President and Mrs. Lincoln. The myth that the president rode to the site of Scott’s execution to deliver the pardon is a good story but bad history, long since debunked, though Janvier incorporates it into his poem:
“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 jubilee,
And, bounding from his fetters, blessed the hand that made him free!”