The legend was launched by Dillon himself. He told his children (and anyone else who would listen) that he had been repairing the president's watch when he learned that Fort Sumter had been attacked, in the opening salvo of the Civil War. Struck by a patriotic impulse, he said, he had etched a message along the lines of, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try." Then he closed up the watch, and sent it back to the White House. Lincoln unknowingly wore the watch throughout the days of tumult, and the watch ended up in the Smithsonian.
No one knew if the story was true, until today, when -- as Neely Tucker reports in the Washington Post -- officials at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History decided to find out. Expert watchmaker George Thomas delicately pulled the timepiece apart -- and on the inside of the case, he found etched words.
"Jonathan Dillon, April 13, 1861," the message read. "Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. Thank God we have a government."
So the old man's memory had not been exact. But his story had been the truth. Douglas Stiles, Dillon's great-great-grandson, was delighted. "That's Lincoln's watch," he exclaimed, after being shown the timepiece. "And my ancestor wrote graffiti on it!"