The Appreciation and Authentication of Civil War Timepieces

This is a book by my friend, Clint Geller. Reading this book opened up a whole new world of history to me. He tells us, “The American Civil War hastened an ongoing transformation in watchmaking from a craft primarily serving privileged elites to a mass-manufacturing industry providing reliable timekeepers to the multitude of ordinary citizens. In the mid-nineteenth century, personal timepieces were not only useful but they could mark an owner’s status and confer prestige. Many hundreds of thousands of Civil war soldiers, who had new, often compelling reasons to know the time, came to think of watches as essential war-fighting equipment.” [p. 1]

To discuss Civil War watches, we first must know the definition of a Civil War watch: “The most restrictive definition of a Civil War watch, and the one that horologists, historians, and serious artifact collectors should prefer, is a watch, whether American or foreign, for which there is documentary evidence (on the watch itself or elsewhere) that it was owned by a Civil War combatant or other individual of Civil War significance during or immediately at the conclusion of the conflict.” [p. 3]

Clint is, to put it mildly, an expert on watches and in particular on Civil War watches. He knows all the ins and outs of authenticating a watch as well as watch construction of the time and watch manufacturers of the time. The book is very well illustrated with photographs of watches detailing what to look for and giving excellent, clear examples of the details one must know to authenticate a Civil War timepiece.

He does a great job in placing the Civil War into its historical context and telling us why it came. In his second chapter he delves into the impact the American Civil War had on Americans’ perceptions of time. “In the year 1860, 53% of all Americans, and about 44.5% of all free Americans, were engaged in agriculture: 40% and 39%, total and free, in the North, and 84% and 66%, total and free, in the South. Thus, counting small entrepreneurs and the like, possibly fewer than half of free Americans who worked likely received regular cash wages, while the rest operated primarily or partly within a barter system. In the antebellum North, farms tended to be small, and the task of coordinating efforts among individuals tended to be fairly simple. In the antebellum South, the rural economy in many areas was dominated by large plantations, sometimes involving the labor of hundreds of individuals, most of whom were slaves. Not unlike large industrial enterprises, large agricultural enterprises required higher degrees of coordination among workers. A mid-nineteenth-century small farmer’s life was regulated by natural cycles of sunup and sundown, and it often mattered little to such a farmer what the hands on a clock or a watch may have said when these natural events occurred. Yet even here, time consciousness and the beginnings of time discipline were hitching a ride on the burgeoning railroad network from the population centers out to the countryside. Thus, perhaps counterintuitively, by the time of the Civil War, clock time had gotten a purchase on rural culture in the even more agrarian South, on account of the larger scale of Southern agricultural enterprises.” [p. 13] Synchronizing military actions required individuals to be aware of time, and the large Civil War armies required more officers and soldiers alike to be aware of time and its passage.

Clint gives us evidence of widespread usage of watches among both Civil War officers and enlisted men, including delving into written personal accounts as well as photographs and secondary sources. Watches themselves become primary evidence as they are artifacts of the time, and many of them contain inscriptions. The book has a number of photographs of such watches and their inscriptions. He even gives us a glimpse into the lives of some of the men who carried these watches as well as the battles in which they fought.

This book is interesting because it’s in a field about which I have very little knowledge, so it is something very new to me. If you are a watch collector, I think you’ll find this book to be essential. If you’re a student of the war like me, you may find it as interesting as I did.

2 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I love books, and by this statement: I mean BOOKS — to have and to hold and turn the pages. I own and love this book, partially because it is a nostalgic throwback to the days of large format magazines & cherished coffee table picture books. However, with The Appreciation and Authentication of Civil War Timepieces you get more than pretty pictures, you get a monograph that dives deep into a topic that most of us know very little about. I backed into this topic by way of my interest in the railroad & its vital importance during the Civil War. I was immediately intrigued by the complexity of scheduling and the crucial ability to synchronize timepieces. Dr. Geller covers this in his book and so much more; it was a joy to read!

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