Civil War Presentation Wm. Ellery to 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry officer

robert jeansonne

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I know there are some out there who collect these presentation watches, and I thought I would share this one with you. This is a recent find of mine that has particular history, confined to only a few regiments in the civil war. I did not know african-american cavalry units existed until recently, with only 6 regiments existing during the civil war. This watch was given to a Lieutenant J.D. Coffman of the 5th U.S.Colored Cavalry, by a sergeant of the 11th Michigan Cavalry. History tells us these two regiments didn't cross paths, until the battle of Saltville, October 2, 1864 at Saltville, Virginia. Saltville was held by the Confederates, and General Grant wanted the salt mines destroyed, as he thought this would escalate the end of the war. The 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry was just getting put together, and the regiment was mostly made up of slaves who had escaped and former slaves who had been granted their freedom by Abraham Lincoln. The 5th U.S. C. Cavalry was issued inferior weapons (enfield rifles!) and horses that had not been adequately trained. On October 2, 1864, the 5th U.S.C.C. along with the 11th Michigan and 12th Ohio Cavalry were one brigade of General Stonemans's first raid that assaulted the hills outside the city of Saltville, Va, where nearly 3000 Confederates were entrenched. After a day's long battle, the Union Brigade gave up and thus resulted in a Confederate victory. About 150 of the 600 soldiers of the 5th U.S.C.C. died. Many wounded and captured colored troops were murdered at the hands of Confederate officers and soldiers, and this became known as the "Massacre at Saltville".

I believe this watch was presented to Lieutenant Coffman because of a heroic gesture, possibly one that saved the life of Sergeant Brainard of the 11th Michigan. I have several presentation watches, and these are generally given as tokens of esteem, or a gift of promotion, or departure. I have spoke with several CW collectors, and none of ever seen a presentation to a member of a Colored Cavalry. This may be the only presentation piece of this nature in existence, but there may be one out there in a museum.

When I received the watch, the second hand was off, and it appeared the balance was over banked. I was able to correct both, get the watch running, and it actually keeps very good time. The movement is an Ellery, 11 jewel, completed in July 1864. This presentation gift must have set back Sergeant Brainard about a month's pay, but probably a small token of gratitude for something that evidently was a very large event in Sergeant Brainard's life. I believe this was probably given to Lieutenant Coffman later in 1864, around the time of the battle of Marion, where they both participated again.

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musicguy

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Great watch and writeup.

Rob
 

Old rookie

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A very, very nice watch. Thanks for the background but the Enfield rifle could hardly be considered an inferior weapon. It was used by both sides in copious quantities.;)
 

robert jeansonne

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A very, very nice watch. Thanks for the background but the Enfield rifle could hardly be considered an inferior weapon. It was used by both sides in copious quantities.;)
What I meant by inferior, was that the firearm would be of little use for a mounted cavalry tooper, rather than being equipped with a carbine. I'm not sure how a mounted soldier would be able to balance himself and shoot a nearly 5ft long rifle from the top of a galloping horse. The Enfield rifles were basically a take it or leave it (I think they were hand-me-downs) issue to the Cavalry troopers in this unit, from what I have read.
 

CentreKeystone

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A lot of northern Civil War cavalry used horses for transportation only and fought on foot as infantry. Enfield (or Springfield) rifles would then be the appropriate weapon of choice.
 

Old rookie

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A lot of northern Civil War cavalry used horses for transportation only and fought on foot as infantry. Enfield (or Springfield) rifles would then be the appropriate weapon of choice.
At the risk of going completely off topic the Union cavalry usually carried carbines such as Sharps, Ballard, Smith, and the wretched Burnside to name a few. An 1861 or 1863 Springfield and a three band Enfield would be awkward to carry mounted as Robert notes.
 

Clint Geller

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At the risk of going completely off topic the Union cavalry usually carried carbines such as Sharps, Ballard, Smith, and the wretched Burnside to name a few. An 1861 or 1863 Springfield and a three band Enfield would be awkward to carry mounted as Robert notes.
Terrific watch, Robert. Thanks for sharing. Any pocket watch from one of the USCT or USCC regiments is quite a treasure, I would think.

Sadly, it was typical that the 200,000 colored men who fought for the Union, 40,000 of whom died in service, were given the worst, most antiquated equipment. I can recommend an excellent book on the black regiments, both infantry and cavalry: Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America, by Douglas R. Egerton (Basic Books, NY 2016, 429 pages). There are two interesting incidents described in that book which relate directly to watches. During the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper Cy. WV, on August 9, 1862, Lt. Robert Gould Shaw of the 2nd MA Infantry, who was the future colonel of the celebrated 54th MA Infantry, was saved from serious injury and possible death when his pocket watch absorbed the impact of a Confederate musket ball. Colonel Shaw famously died during his black regiment's unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner on Morris Island near Charleston, SC on July 18, 1863, and Egerton describes that a great furor subsequently was raised in the Northern press over the theft of Shaw's gold watch from his corpse. Of course, plundering of valuables from enemy corpses was more the rule than the exception in that war, even with officers' effects. Evidently Shaw's gold watch was a replacement for the bullet-struck timepiece he had previously carried as a lieutenant.

I have shown a watch a few times now that was carried by Captain Thorndike Deland Hodges of the 35th USCT (a.k.a., the First NC Colored Volunteers). According to the Harvard Memorial Biographies Volume II, Thorndike received the watch, a silver AT&Co grade Model 1859, from his brother, Lt. Colonel John Hodges Jr.'s comrades in arms, after it was retrieved from John's pocket when he was KIA during the Battle of the Crater outside of Petersburg, VA on July 30, 1864. Thorndike likely carried John's watch during the Battle of Honey Hill in Jasper Cy. SC on November 30, 1864, also a Union defeat. Altogether, the watch saw service in five federal units in two brothers' pockets. Thorndike served a term or two in the MA State assembly after the war, and there is an image of him in my book with a watch chain on his vest likely from that period. One would like to imagine that when that picture was taken, John's watch was on the other end of Thorndike's chain, in his vest pocket.
 
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Clint Geller

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A lot of northern Civil War cavalry used horses for transportation only and fought on foot as infantry. Enfield (or Springfield) rifles would then be the appropriate weapon of choice.
Two regiments of the famed Michigan Cavalry Brigade, the Wolverines, were deliberately equipped with rifles and were trained to fight as mounted infantry rather than cavalry, but they were armed with the latest seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles, not second-hand, dilapidated Enfields. Confederates called the Spencer repeating rifle "that damned Yankee rifle you loaded on Sunday and shot all week."
 
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