Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Secret Message in Lincoln’s Watch

by Kathryn Hadley

A secret inscription inside Abraham Lincoln’s gold watch, marking the beginning of the American Civil War, was uncovered on Tuesday at the National Museum of American History. The museum agreed to open the watch after the watchmaker’s great-great-grandson, Doug Stiles, contacted the museum curator Harry Rubenstein to inform him of the allegedly engraved message. The watch was carefully disassembled by George Thomas, a museum volunteer and master watchmaker. The engraving by watchmaker Jonathan Dillon is dated April 13th, 1861, and reads: ‘Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13, 1861 Washington’ and ‘thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.’

Lincoln allegedly never knew about the inscription and Jonathan Dillon only mentioned it 45 years later, aged 84, in an interview with The New York Times published on April 30th, 1906. The watchmaker told the newspaper that he had been repairing the watch when he found out about the breakout of the war, when Confederate forces attacked the military base at Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861. He described how he had unscrewed the dial of the watch and used a sharp instrument to engrave his name and the historic date on the president’s watch as well as the message: ‘The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try’ (slightly different to the actual inscription). He also claimed that to his knowledge ‘no one but himself ever saw the inscription.’

Brent Glass, director of the National Museum of American History, described the significance of the discovery:

‘Lincoln never knew of the message he carried in his pocket. It's a personal
side of history about an ordinary watchman being inspired to record something
for posterity.’

Doug Stiles’ reacted to the discovery saying:

‘My ancestor put graffiti on Lincoln’s watch!’

The engraving notably raises various questions about the recording of historical events, their perception by people at the time and posterior significance. Did Jonathan Dillon realize at the time that he was witnessing a historical event and the outbreak of a war that would last for four years? Was his engraving a conscious decision to record this historic moment for posterity? It is not instead primarily due to hindsight that we are able to look back, have a general view of a series of events, and judge events as ‘historic’ and historically significant?

A transcript of the 1906 interview and a full length article about the discovery are available on the website of the museum

For more information on the American Civil War visit our focus page:

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