Keeping Time during the American Civil War

By Patrick Saylor
Director, Marketing Communications

This weekend, many Americans engaged in a ritual that occurs each fall as the days grow shorter. Specifically, we turned our clocks back one hour as we return from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time.

As I pondered this event, I wondered about the impact of time and time-keeping during the American Civil War. Specifically, I wanted to know:

  • What, if any, role did horology -- the art or science of measuring time -- play in the war, on the battlefield, in navigation or elsewhere?
  • What, if any, technological advancements took place during the war related to time-keeping?
  • Are there any interesting or unusual time-keeping devices in the Museum's artifacts collection?

In coming blog posts, I will explore these questions and provide up-to-the-minute reports. Today, the role of horology during the Civil War.

In her book, Civil War Time: Temporality and Identity in America, 1861-18651, Cheryl A. Wells explores the many ways in which the war affected Americans' perception and use of time, on and off the battlefield. In it, she argues that antebellum America, through technological and social advances, was well along the path toward becoming a modern society. That progress was temporarily halted by the war and the imposition of "battle time" and its ramifications for daily life.

"Before, one's day was represented with different types of time that vied for control, such as "clock times, natural times, God's time, and personal time", writes reviewer Michael P. Gray in the Dec. 2006 issue of Civil War History. "However, the initiation of battle time upset the natural order of traditional timekeeping. In so doing, battle time might result in less time for sleep, leisure, and the Sabbath but longer time dedicated because of the exigencies of war or perhaps new forms of employment. It might challenge gender roles, where women saw such a shift in hospitals or perhaps in prisons, where time control extended incarceration of captives.

"Wells writes that the Civil War was a "new complicated time to the American people, as events on the battlefields impinged on, overrode, and rearranged antebellum schedules. Clocks and watches, modernity's symbols, lost some of the authority they had increasingly possessed in the antebellum era. . . . However, booming cannons superseded watches' and clocks' ability to order society, and God's time became increasingly secular in the face of battle." The author allows contemporaries to clarify the fog of battle by placing battle time in context with examinations of First Bull Run and Gettysburg. In Virginia, Yankee generals hoped the clock might regulate coordinated attacks, but it only led to failure, while in Pennsylvania, Confederate subordinate commanders met similar circumstances—at the same time, civilians had been dramatically affected by battle time, well represented in the story of Jenny Wade.

"Next, Wells moves away from the battlefield and goes behind the lines. A strict adherence to the clock during the monotonous camp life might be interrupted occasionally by elements, the Sabbath, or battle time. Indeed, Wells explains that battle time might dominate God's time, indicated at Bull Run, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Spotsylvania, and Appomattox. Moreover, time in battle and its aftermath disrupted the natural order of the clock not only from hospitals being crowded with incoming patients but also with the evacuation of those convalescing before the fight. Gender roles were complicated in hospitals with women gaining more authority, only to be relegated to their antebellum status after the conflict. Although their lives were altered, it was still better than the author's next topic, the plight of the prisoner of war.

"After detailing the rehabilitative nature of prewar prisons and penitentiary systems, the author admits that Civil War prisons "fulfilled a different function." Here, battle time again dominated natural time, mechanical time, and religious time as the consequences of battle (after the prisoner exchange breakdown) inundated prisons. The drudgery of prison routine is well highlighted, although Wells does miss out on the importance of the varieties of employment by prison administrators and how that "time" functioned within their specific prison communities. In addition, Wells had an opportunity to investigate prison escapes, with some plans set on "clock time," leading to the importance of the timepiece for coordinated break outs. Despite overlooking such matters, Wells has put together an important work that investigates battle time and its subsequent aftermath. Indeed, as she sums up its consequences after the conflict, "With the silencing of the cannon, battle time lost its authority to order and reorder life. . . . Soldiers, nurses, civilians, and prisoners returned to a society governed by multiple and interpenetrating times based largely on the clock."

Coming up: City Point and the "Horological Torpedo"

12012, University of Georgia Press

Cheryl A. Wells is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Michael P. Gray is currently an Associate Professor of History at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania where he teaches courses on the Civil War, Military History and Civil War memory.

Patrick Saylor is the Director of Marketing Communication for The American Civil War Museum. He has been fascinated with clocks and watches since he was a small child in Lancaster, PA.

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