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An Interesting Civil War Watch

Clint Geller

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I recently came across the watch shown in the attached pdf. It is a very ordinary English fifteen jewel lever, probably with fusee, in a Sterling silver swingout hunting case. The case was made by William Hammon of Coventry, and it was date marked at Chester in 1863-64. The movement has no maker's mark, which is not uncommon for English export watches of the period, but it is engraved, "Ord. Hydrography." The exterior of the case, which bears a serial number, 903, matching that on the movement, is engraved, "C.S.N., O. & H.", which stands for Confederate States Navy, Bureau (or perhaps Department, I am not sure) of Ordnance and Hydrography. That bureau was responsible both for arms and ammunition procurements, and for depth charting of the southern coastline (i.e., hydrography). The federal government had a parallel bureau with the same functions.

To understand how unusual this watch is, one needs to understand that half a million to a million watches, and maybe more, likely went to war with their owners during the American Civil War, but only a tiny few were procured by either the federal or the confederate governments for issuance to troops, primarily enlisted men. For the most part, watches were the private property of soldiers, and were either inherited, gifted to them, or purchased by them, though both the Union and the Confederacy did purchase some small number of watches for use by soldiers. This was so, even though there were many common tasks and functions that relied on having access to a timepiece, and in the field or on ship, that usually meant a watch. This subject is explored in my 2019 book.

So the mystery is: For what special purpose and for whom was the particular watch shown here purchased by the CSN? Well, what do we know about this watch that can solve the mystery?

1. The watch was ordered by the CSN Bureau of Ordnace and Hydrography, which suggests a purpose associated with depth charting of the coastline. That the CSN likely considered depth charting an important function may be appreciated from the fact that blockade runners sought every marginal advantage they could get, in order to evade capture by the Union blockading squadrons. A superior knowledge of the southern coastal waterways, and specifically, the knowledge necessary to use narrow, often tide-dependent or even ephemeral channels through shallower water, would have been such an advantage.

2. Given the apparent rarity of government procured watches during the American Civil War period, we may surmise that the CSN ordered this watch for a very specialized purpose, such as hydrography, that it considered important enough to have a foreign watch, paid for with scarce foreign exchange and run through the blockade, in order to serve.

3. This special purpose absolutely must have required a watch.

4. The watch required to perform this special function apparently did not require the accuracy of a marine chronometer, or chronograph features or a sweep hand for accurately measuring short time intervals, or a hack feature for synchronizing with other timepieces. So though a watch was somehow essential for this special function, a quite ordinary watch with no special features apparently would suffice.

The only special purpose of a watch that I can imagine that satisfies all of the above criteria is to record the times of coastal water depth measurements, so that the depth readings could later be adjusted for the tide cycle. Given the imprecisions in the tide tables and in the knowledge of the measurement locations, any watch would do. An extremely accurate watch would have been superfluous, but a watch was essential.

Note that tide cycles have variable amplitude based on the phase of the moon and the month of the year, so an actual tide table likely was called for. Tidal variability results primarily from the elliptical nature of the moon's orbit around the Earth. Tides are caused primarily by the gravitational pull of the moon, so they tend to be highest when the moon is closest to the Earth, and higher still when perigee occurs when the moon is between the Earth and Sun. (The major elliptic axis of the moon's orbit also precesses - so called "apsidal precession" - with a period of 8.85 years. Two other kinds of lunar precession occur concurrently with the apsidal: axial and nodal, having to do with the fact that the axis of rotation of the moon is not precisely parallel either to the axis of rotation of the Earth around its own center of mass, or to the axis of rotation of the Earth around the Sun. All three precessions are coupled by tidal drag forces and the physical requirement of total angular momentum conservation.)
 

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Andy Dervan

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Great analysis Clint....

By 1863, the Union naval blockade was beginning to have serious impact getting supplies to Confederacy as a number of ports were being captured.

Finding potentially unpublished channels to slip in/out of a harbor would have been very important for blockade runners.

Are there any names associated with officers or leaders in CSN Hydrology? Would this watch be issued to lower rating surveyor or supervisor in Richmond?

Andy Dervan
 

Clint Geller

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Great analysis Clint....

By 1863, the Union naval blockade was beginning to have serious impact getting supplies to Confederacy as a number of ports were being captured.

Finding potentially unpublished channels to slip in/out of a harbor would have been very important for blockade runners.

Are there any names associated with officers or leaders in CSN Hydrology? Would this watch be issued to lower rating surveyor or supervisor in Richmond?

Andy Dervan
Andy, I'm not aware of the names of any specific individuals in the CSN Ordnance & Hydrology Bureau, except for its Chief, Commander George Minor. I can tell you that Civil War officers were given an allowance to purchase their uniforms, and they were expected to buy most of their own accoutrements, including watches, too. (Many senior Confederate officers even hired their own tailors, which explains the wide variation in Confederate general officers' uniforms.) My best guess is that this watch was issued to a more senior enlisted man, like a petty officer or an enlisted master's mate (a Civil War era naval rank that no longer exists).
 
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Andy Dervan

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Hello Clint,

Thank you.

I purchased your book on Civil War watches sometime ago; it was was a fantastic read. It contained a tremendous amount of information about watches retailed and exchanged by soldiers that I did not know about.

One very observation was union soldiers receiving a monthly pay check was completely novel to them and it encouraged them to spend some of it on items like a pocket watch. The war might have had the unplanned effect creating commerce due availability of money salary.

Andy Dervan
 

Clint Geller

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Hello Clint,

Thank you.

I purchased your book on Civil War watches sometime ago; it was was a fantastic read. It contained a tremendous amount of information about watches retailed and exchanged by soldiers that I did not know about.

One very observation was union soldiers receiving a monthly pay check was completely novel to them and it encouraged them to spend some of it on items like a pocket watch. The war might have had the unplanned effect creating commerce due availability of money salary.

Andy Dervan
Thank you for your very kind words, Andy. The Civil War had many lasting effects that are little known or appreciated today. For instance, before the Civil War, there was no such thing as "left" and "right" shoes. There were just "shoes." The federal army procurement system changed that. That's just one example mentioned by one of my speakers at the NAWCC HQ seminar that opened the special Civil War watch exhibit that ran from July 2019 to February 2020.

By the way, I need to correct one thing I just wrote. Commodore was not the highest rank in the CSN. (Aside from once having been a specific rank in the USN, the term "commodore" can still apply to any naval officer, regardless of rank, who is in command of a group of ships.) I remembered that before the end the CSN created at least one rear admiral and perhaps more. In particular, Raphael Semmes, the swashbuckling skipper of the famous/infamous commerce raider, CSS Alabama, was both a CSN rear admiral and, for a brief time, a Confederate Army brigadier general.
 
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Clint Geller

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Clint Geller

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Rob, for more examples like this, view Albert Mackey's leadoff presentation at the July 6, 2019 Seminar. Links to all five presentations are availabe below. Just scroll down the page.

ttps://clintgeller.com/pocket-horology/
Here is another little known effect of the Civil War I just discovered: Prior to the Civil War, there were no bylines in newspapers! Articles in newspapers all were anonymous. But when Joe Hooker was in command of the Union Army of the Potomac, he was disturbed about the amount of information the Confederates were receiving from Northern newspapers, so he issued an order stating that he would not permit newspapers that did not include bylines to be distributed in his army's camps, and reporters who were discovered or suspected to have posted stories anonymously would be banned from camps as well. Soon bylines became universal in American newspapers. Source: Chancellorsville, by Stephen W. Sears (1996), page 74.
 
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jboger

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Clint:

Any history of ownership? Any markings on the dial?

Very interesting bit of history; thank you for that.

John
 

jboger

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Cliff:

It's the history that makes this fusee so fascinating. I have a particular interest in pre-Civil War (i.e pre-Waltham) Anglo-American fusees. I have them from all over New England and a few from the South, even one from Wheeling, (not West) Virginia.

One question I have is, are there others so engraved? My father was a navigator on a B17. The US Army Corp did not purchase just one Hamilton to give only to my father and no others. And given the long coastline from South Carolina on down, the task to measure water depth as a function of time for what must have been many, many sites would be too great for a single man with a single watch. This makes me think there might be others.

On the other hand, perhaps this watch is unique and was presented to the man who headed up the CSN O&H. Do we know his name?

It's interesting to think there might be others "out there". But you know, I think this is the one and only.

John
 

Clint Geller

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Cliff:

It's the history that makes this fusee so fascinating. I have a particular interest in pre-Civil War (i.e pre-Waltham) Anglo-American fusees. I have them from all over New England and a few from the South, even one from Wheeling, (not West) Virginia.

One question I have is, are there others so engraved? My father was a navigator on a B17. The US Army Corp did not purchase just one Hamilton to give only to my father and no others. And given the long coastline from South Carolina on down, the task to measure water depth as a function of time for what must have been many, many sites would be too great for a single man with a single watch. This makes me think there might be others.

On the other hand, perhaps this watch is unique and was presented to the man who headed up the CSN O&H. Do we know his name?

It's interesting to think there might be others "out there". But you know, I think this is the one and only.

John
Hi John,

Per my post #3, the Chief of the CSN's O&H Bureau was Commander George Minor. His is the only name associated with that bureau of which I am aware. However, I very much doubt that either this watch was intended for him or any other one, specific person, or that this watch, though clearly rare, is unique. As I said previously, officers in that period were expected to buy their own watches. Their governments did not furnish them, even when their duties required a watch. So I strongy suspect this watch was issued to an enlisted man. Furthermore, if a watch was intended for a specific high ranking officer, it would likely have his name in it, and it would very likely be gold, not silver. If a dozen such watches like the one we see here had been purchased, we would still be lucky if only two have survived today. Thus it would not be strange that we happen to know of only one's whereabouts.
 

Lee Passarella

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Here is another little known effect of the Civil War I just discovered: Prior to the Civil War, there were no bylines in newspapers! Articles in newspapers all were anonymous. But when Joe Hooker was in command of the Union Army of the Potomac, he was disturbed about the amount of information the Confederates were receiving from Northern newspapers, so he issued an order stating that he would not permit newspapers that did not include bylines to be distributed in his army's camps, and reporters who were discovered or suspected to have posted stories anonymously would be banned from camps as well. Soon bylines became universal in American newspapers. Source: Chancellorsville, by Stephen W. Sears (1996), page 74.
Read that but forgot it, Clint. Thanks for reminding me of this important bit of history. The often maligned Joe Hooker instituted some important changes in the way thing were run in the Union Army, including corps badges, which increased morale. I don't know if it would have helped his reputation if he hadn't been struck in the head by flying debris at Chancellorsville, but today, I think we might be more inclined to give him a pass. Hooker went on to do vital service at Lookout Mountain. But Lee's brilliant strategy at Chancellorsville, and Hooker's head injury, certainly did him in.
 

Clint Geller

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Read that but forgot it, Clint. Thanks for reminding me of this important bit of history. The often maligned Joe Hooker instituted some important changes in the way thing were run in the Union Army, including corps badges, which increased morale. I don't know if it would have helped his reputation if he hadn't been struck in the head by flying debris at Chancellorsville, but today, I think we might be more inclined to give him a pass. Hooker went on to do vital service at Lookout Mountain. But Lee's brilliant strategy at Chancellorsville, and Hooker's head injury, certainly did him in.
Yes, Lee, I agree that Hooker is unfairly maligned at times. Hooker not only instituted corps badges, he did several other things to improve army morale, including greatly diminishing the desertion problem that was threatening to destroy the Army of the Potomac when he took command. In his book, Chancellorsville, historian Stephen Sears discusses various innovative measures that Hooker took to accomplish these goals.
 

Clint Geller

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Some additonal information on this watch, which I now own:

In 1863, Commander George Minor was relieved as Chief of the CSN Bureau of O&H by Commander John Mercer Brooke. So inasmuch as the case of the CSN O&H watch was assayed at Chester sometime between August 5, 1863 and August 5, 1864, it was likely Cdr. Brooke who ordered this watch. Unconfirmed information that came with the watch from its previous owner is that the watch was in fact the personal property of Cdr. Brooke, which contradicts my earlier speculation. The fact that no other watch of its kind with a CSN O&H provenance is known to exist does make a Brooke provenance eminently plausible, however. The other possibly relevant fact is that the CSN O&H Bureau was heavily engaged in procurements from England, so a watch purchase from England would have been easy for Brooke to arrange, and it probably would not have raised eyebrows.

John Mercer Brooke was a very accomplished individual. The native Floridian was an early graduate of the US Naval Academy. In the 1850's he improved ocean depth charting technology and subsequently was instrumental in the laying of the first transatlantic cable. During the Civil War, while serving in the CSN he was heavily involved in converting the former steam frigate USS Merrimack into the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, which famously faced off against the ironclad USS Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862. Brooke also invented a new kind of muzzle loading cast iron naval gun, used both on ships and in coastal defenses, called the Brooke Rifle, which was specifically designed so that it could be readily manufactured at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.
 
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It may not add anything interesting Clint ... but I loved the story I learned about the USS Housatonic and the Hunley submersible on the occasion of the presentation of a British import watch. Hope you like.

 

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Hi Miguel,

Just a small detail; the 1530 watch you illustrate wasn't made by Philip Melanchthon but was owned by him. (I'm using the Google translation for the web pages, which may not always be totally accurate!). As far as I'm aware, its maker remains unknown. It's now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It's believed to be the oldest dated watch known, but it clearly had predecessors, judging by the quality of its manufacture.

Regards,

Graham
 

Clint Geller

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It may not add anything interesting Clint ... but I loved the story I learned about the USS Housatonic and the Hunley submersible on the occasion of the presentation of a British import watch. Hope you like.

Thank you, Miguel. The link you sent me is in Spanish, I believe. My daughter speaks that language, but unfortunately, I know only English and a little French. In any case, I am familiar with the Hunley/Housatonic story. It is mentioned in my Civil War book.
 
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Thank you, Miguel. The link you sent me is in Spanish, I believe. My daughter speaks that language, but unfortunately, I know only English and a little French. In any case, I am familiar with the Hunley/Housatonic story. It is mentioned in my Civil War book.
Yes, you can use the tool translation of the same web and nots bad. This story its amazing.
 
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Hi Miguel,

Just a small detail; the 1530 watch you illustrate wasn't made by Philip Melanchthon but was owned by him. (I'm using the Google translation for the web pages, which may not always be totally accurate!). As far as I'm aware, its maker remains unknown. It's now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It's believed to be the oldest dated watch known, but it clearly had predecessors, judging by the quality of its manufacture.

Regards,

Graham
Thank you so much for the correction. I will edit!
 

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