What Makes It a ‘Civil War Watch’ vs. a ‘Civil War Relic?’

Abraham Lincoln’s watch is considered a “hands down” Civil War relic.

Abraham Lincoln’s watch is considered a “hands down” Civil War relic.

It may seem you’d need to be very gullible to believe what many sellers put in their descriptions, namely that every other key-wound pocket watch on eBay is a “Civil War Watch.” Sounds a little too-far fetched to be true, but in many instances, they are 100-percent correct, if the watch in question pre-dates the spring of 1865.

Truth be known, many thousands of pocket watches were manufactured, both in America and Europe, during this tumultuous time, and imported to the USA. So, just what is a “Civil War watch?” A definition is probably in order.

There are several differing schools of thought, and I will attempt to relate them to you and bring some clarity as to what a Civil War watch actually is. To start, we’ll need to clarify the difference between a Civil War watch and a “Civil War relic.”

The Civil War was an American War, so Civil War enthusiasts claim the only real Civil War watch is a Waltham, made by the only American watch company in existence prior to and during the Civil War. If we are to fall in line with this line of thinking, life would be simpler, but it just isn’t so. There were many other watchmakers doing business and making watches right here in the good ’ol U.S. of A., back to Colonial times, in fact. Waltham is considered to be the first American watch company to successfully produce watches using Eli Whitney’s method of mass production, but that’s another story. Still, there is much credence to this school of thought, and any Waltham watch with a serial number under 180,000 is considered a Civil War watch.

An example of a Waltham issued to a telegrapher for the Union Army’s Military Telegraph Corps.

An example of a Waltham issued to a telegrapher for the Union Army’s Military Telegraph Corps.

The rifle most favored by Civil War enthusiasts and consider the “Civil War gun” is the Springfield Percusion Rifle, the first successful product ever mass-produced under Eli Whitney’s patented method production with interchangeable parts. This rifle was carried almost exclusively by Union soldiers, and Confederate soldiers would carry a Springfield when they could capture one. While all Springfields produced before 1864 are considered “Civil War,” not all were carried by soldiers, and these should not be considered Civil War relics, even though they sometimes are. They are all guns—weapons of war—and hold a distinction that a watch simply cannot. However, a watch can be a Civil War relic; all we need is a little thing called “provenance.” Simply put: a documented history or obvious evidence of the history of the particular item.

About a year ago, I wrote an article on the inscription hidden in Abraham Lincoln’s watch. This famous watch is considered a “hands down” Civil War relic. Having been carried by the Supreme Commander of the Union Forces, we can even say it “saw action.” This watch is not only documented, it contains a hidden inscription pertaining to the war. This very, very “Civil War” watch was actually made in England, cased and sold in the U.S. to Lincoln before the war. Another more recent article is on a Waltham issued to a telegrapher for the Union Army’s Military Telegraph Corps, made in this country by an American company during the Civil War and issued to a members of a branch of the Union military service, which makes it another a genuine Civil War relic (if one is to believe the engraving!).

So, examples like these aforementioned watches must be considered are genuine, documented Civil War relics, and hold a place in American History. Therefore, they will command a greater price from a collector or at auction.

Below you will find photos of four Civil War watches, only one of which has the provenance to make it a Civil War relic:

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This watch (above) belonged to Lt. Charles White, who commanded a Confederate Army volunteer unit—the Auburn Guards. I was presented this watch by his men on Oct. of 1860 (if the engraving is to be believed!). This watch has seen much use and most certainly was carried by Lt. White during the war. The first Volunteer Regiment of Alabama Militia was formed in Mobile in 1845 and commanded by Col. John B. Todd from 1845 to the outbreak of the war. The regiment consisted of the Mobile Rifles, the State Artillery Company, the Mobile Cadets, the German fusiliers, the Washington Light Infantry, the City Troop, the Independent Rifles, the Gardes Lafayette and Gulf City Guard. The 2nd Independent Volunteer Regiment of the State of Alabama was formed in Montgomery on July 25, 1860, under Col. Tennant Lomax, and included the Montgomery True Blues, the Tuskegee Light Infantry, the Auburn Guards and The Metropolitan Guards. The Auburn Guards, from Montgomery, which also formed in 1860, became part of the 2nd Alabama Volunteer Regiment. More information and some photographs about 2nd Alabama Volunteer Regiment, click here.

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Next is an English-made Joseph Johnson watch (above) housed in an American-made gold hunter case. There is no documentation, Civil War or otherwise, be it engravings or etchings, on this watch, but it most definitely of the Civil War period. Its estimated value is $2,000, mainly for the gold content.

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Third is an American-made Waltham #156531, circa1864, housed in its original American Waltham Watch Co. 18K gold hunter case. Again, there is no historical documentation, engravings or etchings to give it provenance as being carried by a military man, but it, too, is of Civil War vintage. Its estimated value is $2,500, with the gold content again being a significant factor.

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The final example is watch made prior to hostilities. It is Waltham #10186 (above), circa 1858, housed in its original silver hunter case, and also has no historical documentation or engraving, but the likelihood of this watch having been carried during the Civil War is much greater than the first two examples. Still, it is not a Civil War relic; merely a Civil War period watch. Its value is $2,500 because it is a rare Waltham.

The case marking of a gold Waltham was an American eagle, but also dubbed the “broken-wing chicken.” This is the typical marking for an American Civil War-era watch, gold or silver.

The case marking of a gold Waltham was an American eagle, but also dubbed the “broken-wing chicken.” This is the typical marking for an American Civil War-era watch, gold or silver.

This last photo (above) is of a gold Waltham’s case marking, which was dubbed the “broken-wing chicken,” or, more accurately, the American eagle. This is the typical marking for an American Civil War-era watch, gold or silver.

I have chosen these four examples because they so closely typify the “Civil War watch,” or at least cover the obvious. There are many other watches out there that are of Civil War era and don’t look anything like these, be they made in England or Switzerland, imported to the US and retailed by an American jeweler. Any one of these watches could have been in the pocket of a soldier as he fought in any battle of say, Gettysburg of the Wilderness, but without documentation, it’s just another antique watch. Actually, the likelihood of a typical infantryman carrying an expensive pocket watch with him on a military campaign or into battle would be rare, if not unheard of. What would a foot soldier need a watch for? An officer would have a need for a watch, but it would need to be a relatively inexpensive and durable timepiece. English and Swiss watches of the day were prohibitively expensive and fragile, as well as difficult to repair. The American Waltham watch was the perfect watch for the job, as they were well-made, durable and relatively easy to repair, thanks to Whitney’s system of mass production and interchangeable parts. The technology of the day had not yet advanced to “stem winding,” so all Civil War watches are “key wind.”

My thanks and credit to the Waltham Watch Co. Abe Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and of course Generals Lee and Grant and all the foot soldiers they commanded.

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


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