The young soldier stood at attention before the court.
“William Scott, you have been found guilty,” the judge said in a firm voice. “You will be shot by a firing squad within twenty-four hours!”
William’s heart was heavy with fear. He was only twenty-two and had joined the Union Army a few months earlier to fight for his country.
Two nights before, one of William’s comrades had been too sick to do guard duty so William had taken his place. Then the very next night William found himself assigned to guard duty.
The young soldier doubted he could stay awake, and so he went to the captain and told him of his fear. “I’m afraid I can’t keep awake on guard duty a second night,” William explained. “Could you find a replacement for me?”
The captain was busy, and without really listening he brushed aside the boy’s request.
That night William reported for guard duty, and only a few hours later he was found asleep at his post. Now he was to be shot as a traitor!
As the captain heard the judge pronounce sentence on the young soldier, he stepped forward and pled with the judge. “If anyone ought to be shot,” he said, “then I should be the one. Please save William’s life.”
The sorrow and concern of the captain and the other men of William’s regiment for their comrade’s life touched the heart of the judge. He thought about the matter for a few minutes, and then he turned to the captain and said softly, “There is only one man who can save your friend. Come, we will go to President Lincoln.”
A short time later the judge and captain arrived at the White House. Although the president was very busy, he took time to listen quietly to the story the two men told. When they finished, he said, “It would be a sad thing for a young man like William Scott to die like this.”
President Lincoln’s voice was full of compassion as he promised, “I will look into the matter myself this very day.”
That afternoon the president went to the guardhouse of the army camp. He talked with William about his friends back home, his school, and especially about his mother.
“William, you should be thankful that your mother still lives,” President Lincoln said gently. “If I were in your place, I would try to make her a proud mother and never cause her any sorrow.”
William listened patiently and then he asked the president a question that had been troubling him. “Would it be possible not to appoint any men from my own regiment to the firing squad?” he asked. “The hardest thing of all would be to die by the hands of my friends.”
“My boy,” said President Lincoln, “you are not going to be shot tomorrow. I am going to trust you to go back to your regiment. Your country has great need of men like you.”
For a moment William could not believe what he had heard, but when he looked into President Lincoln’s loving eyes, he knew the words were true. “How can I ever repay you, sir?” he asked in a voice that trembled because of the big lump in his throat.
President Lincoln put his hands on the young boy’s shoulders. “My boy,” he said, “my bill is a very large one. No money can pay it and no friends can help you. There is only one person in all the world who can pay your debt, and his name is William Scott. If you will fight bravely and do your duty as a soldier, then the debt will be paid. Will you make that promise?”
William promised he would do as the president asked. Then with tear-filled eyes, William vowed to himself that with God’s help he would keep the solemn promise he made that day to President Abraham Lincoln.
And he did!