Abraham Lincoln's Watch, around 1858

  • -thumbnail 1
  • -thumbnail 2
  • -thumbnail 3
Lincoln’s English gold watch was purchased in the 1850s from George Chatterton, a Springfield, Illinois, jeweler. Lincoln was not considered to be outwardly vain, but the fine gold watch was a conspicuous symbol of his success as a lawyer.
The watch movement and case, as was often typical of the time, were produced separately. The movement was made in Liverpool, where a large watch industry manufactured watches of all grades. An unidentified American shop made the case. The Lincoln watch has one of the best grade movements made in England and can, if in good order, keep time to within a few seconds a day. The 18K case is of the best quality made in the US.
A Hidden Message
Just as news reached Washington that Confederate forces had fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, watchmaker Jonathan Dillon was repairing Abraham Lincoln's timepiece. Caught up in the moment, Dillon unscrewed the dial and engraved: "April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13, 1861 Washington" and "thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon."
In 1864 a second watchmaker, L. E. Gross, signed his name. Also, at some point someone etched "Jeff Davis" inside the watch, either as a joke or a statement of support for the Confederacy.
Lincoln never knew about the messages he carried in his watch. The inscription remained hidden behind the dial for over a century. After hearing from Jonathan Dillon's great-great-grandson, the Museum removed the dial on March 10, 2009, to reveal the watchmakers' declarations.
Gift of Lincoln Isham, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln, 1958
Currently not on view
See more items in
Political and Military History: Political History, Presidential History Collection
Clothing & Accessories
Government, Politics, and Reform
Selections from the Abraham Lincoln Collection
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
gift of Lincoln Isham, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln, 1958
associated person
Lincoln, Abraham
Related Publication
Rubenstein, Harry R.. Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life
related event
Battle of Fort Sumter, 1861
Physical Description
gold; glass (watch material)
metal (key material)
gold (watch chain material)
wood; metal; fabric (box material)
watch: 2 in x 3 in x 1/2 in; 5.08 cm x 7.62 cm x 1.27 cm
watch chain: 13 in; 33.02 cm
National Museum of American History
Object Name
watch, pocket