Engraved in Time

Two discoveries spotlight President Abraham Lincoln

March 11, 2009

In April 1861, Jonathan Dillon was fixing an ordinary pocket watch in a store in Washington, D.C. Suddenly, the shop's owner raced up to Dillon and said: "War has begun; the first shot has been fired." The owner was talking about the beginning of the Civil War. Confederate soldiers had fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina.

An upset Dillon decided to write down his feelings about this important event. He chose a very unusual place for his words: the inside of the watch he was working on. In tiny script, Dillon engraved: "April 13 - 1861, Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date." He also wrote, "Thank God we have a government." Without telling anyone what he had done, Dillon closed up the watch and it was returned to its owner: the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln!

Time for a Story

In 1906, a reporter from the New York Times heard Dillon's story and interviewed the elderly watchmaker. Dillon said no one, not even Lincoln, ever knew about the inscription.

And that's where the tale ended—until this week. Douglas Stiles, Dillon's great-great grandson, had heard the watch story from an uncle and searched the Internet to see if he could learn more about the secret writing. Stiles found the old New York Times article online and then spoke to officials at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (The museum had been given the watch by Lincoln's family in 1958.)

Stiles told museum officials that there might be some secret writing in the watch. Since this was a rare chance to learn about American history, officials decided to let the public watch the watch being opened. "It's a moment of discovery, and you can only discover things once," said Harry R. Rubenstein, a curator at the museum. "We wanted to share it."

The Moment of Truth

Working under powerful lighting and using magnifying glasses, George Thomas, a master watchmaker, very carefully opened the back of the watch. "The moment of truth has come," he said. "Is there or is there not an inscription?"

Stiles and his brother Don were asked to take the first look. "There is an inscription!" Douglas Stiles shouted. "My goodness, that's Lincoln's watch," he said later on. "My ancestor put graffiti on it."

Historians noted that Dillon had made a couple of mistakes in his message. He misspelled "Sumter" and got the date of the attack wrong. (It was April 12, not April 13.) But does that matter? Not at all! Dillon's secret writing "adds to our understanding of how an ordinary person was affected by the events of the day," said Brent D. Glass, the director of the museum.

Snap and Learn

Lincoln was in the news for another reason this week. An old photo may show Lincoln standing in front of the White House. If it is the President, it would be the last known photo of him before he was assassinated. It is also the only known photo of Lincoln in front of the White House.

The picture was taken in March 1865. Ulysses S. Grant, who was President from 1869-1877, owned it. On the back of the photo, these words are written: "Lincoln in front of the White House." Also included is other information telling when the photo was taken.

Several historians who have studied the picture say they believe the tall man is Lincoln, but that may be hard to prove. William Stapp, an expert on photos, says it looks like Lincoln. "I can see his hairline. I can see the shadow of his beard," says Stapp.


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