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The Legend Behind a Lincoln Watch Whose Time for Truth Has Finally Come

Abraham Lincoln's English gold watch.
Abraham Lincoln's English gold watch. (Richard Strauss - Museum of American History)

In front of an audience of 40 or so reporters and museum employees, expert watchmaker George Thomas used a series of delicate instruments -- tweezers, tiny pliers -- to pull apart Lincoln's timepiece. He put on a visor with a magnifying lens and talked as he worked. Some of the pins were nearly stuck, he explained. The hands of the watch were original. The case was made in America and the workings in Liverpool, England. The Rail-Splitter had either splurged or been given a dandy: The watch, Thomas said, would be the equivalent to a timepiece "you'd pay $5,000 for" today.

He pried off the watch's face, pulled off the hands, and turned it over to see the brass underside of the movement.

The audience, watching on a monitor, gasped.

Split into three different sections to get around the tiny gears was this razor-thin etching: "Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861. Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date thank God we have a government." He added "Washington" and his name again.

The old man's memory had not been exact. He had not forecast the end of slavery, or Lincoln's critical role in its demise. And the fort had actually been attacked on April 12. (The name "Jeff. Davis," the president of the Confederacy, is also etched on a different part of the brass plate, in different handwriting. It remains unexplained. And someone added the name "LE Grofs" and "1864.")

But it was there, a little bit of history that had been hidden at Lincoln's side during those tumultuous days of war and rebellion, the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, and then resting, unseen, for nearly a century and a half.

"A real moment of discovery," Rubenstein said.

Stiles, comparing the Fort Sumter attack to a cultural moment akin to "Pearl Harbor or 9/11," was delighted.

"That's Lincoln's watch," he said, after putting it down, "and my ancestor put graffiti on it!"

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