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A Rack Lever Fusee Civil War Watch with a Story

by David Mycko (05/03/10).

This medium quality English fusee pair case “contract watch” was made in Liverpool, England and shipped to Philadelphia, Pa., where it was finished by B&E Clark. It was later sold to Thomas E. Eisenbeis around 1835 and later carried by Henry Eisenbeis during his service in the Civil War.

This medium quality English fusee pair case “contract watch” was made in Liverpool, England and shipped to Philadelphia, Pa., where it was finished by B&E Clark. It was later sold to Thomas E. Eisenbeis around 1835 and later carried by Henry Eisenbeis during his service in the Civil War.

This is a medium quality English fusee pair case “contract watch” carried by a Union soldier during the Civil War. As I have written earlier, there is a difference between a “Civil War watch” and a “Civil War Relic.” This watch is certainly the former, as it existed before 1861, the evidence that it is the latter is scant.

This watch started life with a long travel across “the pond” from Liverpool, England, to Philadelphia, Pa., was then retailed in Reading, Pa. and carried by its proud owner and his descendants for many decades thereafter. The original owner was Thomas E. Eisenbeis, a rather successful farmer with a modest farm in Leesport, Pa. just outside the city of Reading. He purchased the watch around 1835 from W.E. Meyer, a simple retail jeweler and watchmaker in Reading.

Eisenbeis gave his prized possession to his son Henry E., following the time-honored tradition of passing along prized possessions from father to son. Henry carried the watch for many years before himself passing it on his son, M.L. At this point in time, the watch had become an archaic relic and treasured family heirloom, safely tucked away in another family heirloom, a Federal period highboy dresser at the family farm in Leesport.

I was very fortunate to purchase this watch from the great-great-great-granddaughter of Henry Eisenbeis, along with a brief verbal history of the Eisenbeis family, including, in particular, the story of Henry, his watch, and most importantly, his Civil War adventure and participation in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Henry E. Eisenbeis was born in Leesport in Jan. of 1839 to hardy hard working Pennsylvania farmers Thomas and Maud Eisenbeis. He was the oldest of six children, three boys and three girls. Theirs was a large and successful farm and dairy.

Henry was approaching manhood and preparing to take a leadership role in the family enterprise when hostilities between the states broke out. He joined the Union Army, enrolled into the Ringgold Light Artillery, which was recruiting in Reading, and mustered on April 18, 1861, in Harrisburg, Pa.

The inner and outer cases of the watch are composed of Coin Silver (.900 fine) and bear incised silver marks similar to English hallmarks.

The inner and outer cases of the watch are composed of Coin Silver (.900 fine) and bear incised silver marks similar to English hallmarks. Inside the outer case is a cloth pad to insulate the two cases from rubbing against each other.

The inside of the watch, marked “B&E Clark” and “Philadelphia.”

The inside of the watch, marked “B&E Clark” and “Philadelphia.”

When their nation called, these men of Reading were among the first to respond. Following the capitulation of Fort Sumter and in response to President Lincoln’s first call to arms in April 1861, the men of the Ringgold Light Artillery, National Light Infantry, Washington Artillery, Logan Guard and Allen Infantry departed their Pennsylvania homes and families and marched into history as the First Defenders, for they were the first volunteer troops to reach Washington after the start of Civil War.

Despite this distinguished achievement and regardless of their place in American history, little is known and much less has been written about these men and the companies they comprised. With “First in Defense of the Union,” Civil War historian John David Hoptak fills this void in historiography and brings the story of the First Defenders vividly to life by relying heavily upon soldiers’ letters and diaries to tell of their enlistment into service, their harrowing march through Baltimore, their arrival in the nation’s capital, and their three-month term of service with the Federal forces.

Medical personnel and ambulances prior to the battle of Gettysburg. Henry Eisenbeis, who was wounded early in the war, was volunteering as a doctor’s assistant, and was at Gettysburg.

Medical personnel and ambulances prior to the battle of Gettysburg. Henry Eisenbeis, who was wounded early in the war, was volunteering as a doctor’s assistant, and was at Gettysburg.

The Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading was originally organized and equipped in 1850, under Capt. James McKnight, a veteran of the Mexican-American War. It was armed with four six-pound brass field pieces and caissons, with full equipments of artillerists, including sabers, and mustered some 200 men. It was composed of good material, was well drilled, and was the pride of the city of Reading. It had participated in several volunteer encampments; one at Easton of a week’s duration, where it was entertained by ex-Governor Reeder, and other leading citizens.

Henry Eisenbeis was seriously wounded early in the war and carried this legacy with him until his death in the form of a serious limp. He was shot in the lower part of his leg by a Rebel sharpshooter while defending a position outside of Washington D.C. His medical condition precluded any further military service, but he later volunteered to assist the Union troops as a doctor’s assistant and was on hand at the Battle of Gettysburg.

I was told of letters of accommodation, medals, uniforms and testimonials by local prominent citizens and politicians. All have since disappeared with the passage of time and neglect. This is a shame, but I was fortunate enough to have his story related to me by his last surviving relative before her passing. All this makes for an interesting article, but not nearly enough to make this watch an historic Civil War relic; there is simply not enough documented provenance. I have estimated the value of this watch at $1,500, but just recently sold it to a collector for half this amount.

There was also home-made paper lining, cut from newspapers of the day.
There was also home-made paper lining, cut from newspapers of the day.
These newspapers make the watch a “time capsule” in more ways than one.
These newspapers make the watch a “time capsule” in more ways than one.

The watch was cased and finished by B.E. Clark in Philadelphia and bears their name on the back plates of the movement. The inner and outer cases are composed of Coin Silver (.900 fine) and bear incised silver marks similar to English hallmarks. The dial is typical domed glass enamel with gold hands, the glass crystal protecting the dial shows much use and pocket scratches, as do the inner and outer cases, all original and “as found.” The medium-grade English fusee movement has a patent rack lever escarpment. It is in very good running condition.

Now for the interesting part: Inside the outer case are paper linings with a cloth pad to insulate the two cases from rubbing against each other. This was a common practice with pair case fusee watches of this period. This form of protection was also an opportunity for watchmakers to advertise their trade by inserting a “watch paper” with their name and date of repair upon it. The “watch papers” inside this watch are home made from the local newspaper and are a literal “time capsule.” One partial story tells of “some 3,000 Rebel Calvary have advanced as far as Sarcoxie, and that their foraging parties are following closely the retreat of Hunter’s division. The Unionists that had compromised themselves by affiliating with the army of Freemont, are now disserting their homesteads, and seeking refuge etc.”

Rarely do I encounter such personal provenance with an antique watch, and I’m not sure how much this lovely old lady remembered or embellished the story, but I sure did enjoy listening to it. I certainly enjoyed owning it and re-telling the story here, and I even made a modest profit on the sale of the watch.

This is what collecting antiques is all about; better than the investment money thing. Not everything has a value and a price.

My thanks and credit to Mrs. Margarite Brown, Richard Newman, John David Hoptak, B.E. Clark, Gen David Hunter, Gen John C. Fremont.

David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.

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