The Amazing Story of the Secret Messages Abraham Lincoln Carried

Before he became the sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer. He was self-taught, but he got his legal license in 1836 and he became a very good attorney. So good, in fact, that he could afford a status symbol, and he chose an English pocket-watch with an 18 karat gold case.

From the Smithsonian. Gift of Lincoln Isham, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln, 1958


The pocket-watch was a terrific choice to affirm and raise his status. Any time he wanted to impress potential and existing clients he could check the time with this very conspicuous symbol of his success.

From the Smithsonian. Gift of Lincoln Isham, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln, 1958


He carried the watch to Washington when he became the president, and he was having it repaired on the day the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, which began the American Civil War.

The watchmaker who was repairing the watch, Jonathan Dillon, pulled out the dial and on the back of it, he engraved two messages:

“April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13, 1861 Washington”

“thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.”

He gave the watch back to President Lincoln, without mentioning that he had altered it.

In 1864, the watch was sent to another watchmaker, L. E. Gross. He also etched his name into the back of the watch.

And at some point another person etched in the name “Jeff Davis,” a reference to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. It isn’t known who made this final etching, or whether it was a joke or a pro-Confederacy protest.

From the Smithsonian. Gift of Lincoln Isham, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln, 1958


The strangest part of this story was that President Lincoln didn’t know about any of the messages, despite carrying the watch nearly every day for over 10 years. The watch was donated to the Smithsonian, but they didn’t know about it either. Why would they? They weren’t actually keeping the watch running.

In April of 1906, Jonathan Dillon, the first watchmaker to engrave a message, was 84 years old. He told the New York Times his story.

“When the Civil War broke out, I was in the employ of M. W. Galt & Co. on Pennsylvania Avenue, near Seventh Street, in Washington. I was the only Union sympathizer working in the shop. I was working upstairs when Mr. Galt came up. He was very much excited and gasped: ‘Dillon, war has begun; the first shot has been fired.’

“At that moment I had in my hand Abraham Lincoln’s watch, which I had been repairing…The late John Hay told me afterward that it was the first watch Mr. Lincoln ever owned. I was in the act of screwing on the dial when Mr. Galt announced the news. I unscrewed the dial, and with a sharp instrument wrote on the metal beneath: ‘The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.’ Then I signed my name and the date.

“So far as I know, no one but myself ever saw the Inscription, and I do not know into whose hands Mr. Lincoln’s watch fell at his death.”

Over 100 years after Dillon told this story to the New York Times, his great-great-grandson Douglas Stiles found the article. Stiles, like Lincoln, is a lawyer from Illinois. After reading his great-great-grandfather’s story, he learned that the Smithsonian had Lincoln’s watch and contacted them.

On March 10, 2009, 144 years after Lincoln died, curators at the museum pulled the watch out and found the story was really true! Nearly 150 years after the inscriptions were written, the messages Abraham Lincoln carried close to his heart for years–without ever knowing it–were finally revealed.

From the Smithsonian. Gift of Lincoln Isham, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln, 1958