The Tale of Abraham Lincoln’s Watch


The first shots were fired on April 12th, 1861 commencing the American Civil War and the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, stated:

Now is the time for decision – for firm, persistent, resolute action.

But those words were recorded after someone else inscribed words inside a pocket watch that was not known until many decades later, not even Mr. Lincoln, who owned it.
On March 10th, 2009 the Smithsonian National Museum of American History blog site reported that words were indeed inscribed on the inside of Abraham Lincoln’s watch, now the property of the national museum.

National Museum of American History photo
National Museum of American History photo


Abraham Lincoln had purchased a gold pocket watch in the 1830s that had been made in England, when he was working as an attorney in Springfield, Illinois. In the spring of April, 1861, Mr. Lincoln, then the president brought the pocket watch for cleaning and repair at the Washington, DC watch shop by the name of M. W. Galt & Co. that was located on Pennsylvania Avenue, just up the road from the White House. The repair work was assigned to Jonathan Dillon, an Irish immigrant watchmaker who lived at 46 West 117th Street at the time.
On the morning of April 13th, 1861, Mr. Dillon was about to screw the dial back on after cleaning and making necessary repairs on the president’s watch, when Mr. Galt rushed in to announce the latest headlines from the New York Times: war had been declared by the shots fired upon Fort Sumter. Mr. Dillon inscribed his own remarks commemorating the historical moment and finished reassembling the watch.
The war would finally end in 1865 and after the death of President Lincoln, the watch was owned by Robert Todd, Abraham’s descendant. Family of the 16th president later donated it to the Smithsonian Museum in 1958, along with the hidden inscribed words by Jonathan Dillon unbeknown to them or Abraham Lincoln.
The New York Times reported a story concerning a public interest piece about an 84-year-old juror serving in the Supreme Court in 1906, who happened to be a watchmaker for 74 years and who told the interviewer an interesting tale concerning Abraham Lincoln and his gold pocket watch and that he had inscribed his name, date and words concerning the outbreak of the American Civil War.
This was all not verified until 2008, when Mr. Dillon’s great-great-grandson contacted the National Museum of American History to verify the story passed down through the family. The watch was opened and the following words inscribed:

Jonathan Dillon
April 13, 1861
Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels
Thank God we have a government

But apparently someone else opened the watch and added partly legible words:

LE Engels (?)
Sep 1 – 1864
…(?)
Jeff Davis

No one knows who added more words than Jonathan Dillon’s original dated commentary. Was it one of Mr. Dillon’s fellow employees who were sympathetic to the cause of the seceded southern states? Was it a person working at the Smithsonian Museum? One mystery solved, another surfaced.