“What Time Was It?” – A Historian’s Challenge

I glance at the clock. I’m on the west coast of the United States, so I calculate a three hour time difference between my location and the library I need to call on the east coast. That’s not hard: 10am in California is 1pm in Virginia.

1859 Pocket Watch (Photography by suebun, via Wikimedia Commons)

1859 Pocket Watch
(Photography by suebun, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m reading a Gettysburg primary source. The soldier says the fighting began at daybreak. When’s daybreak? Reading on… What time did the Eleventh Corps break lines and retreat? What time did Pickett’s Charge begin? Oh, easy – “Captain Rob Smith” said it was at 3:00. How do you know Captain Rob Smith’s watch was accurate?

Here’s a few things I learned about “time past” during my Gettysburg research for Blue, Gray & Crimson

Time Was Not Standardized Very Well

Sure, there were clocks. There were even pocket watches; soldiers and civilians had them. But there was no atomic clock. In a rural setting, time was still told by the sun, the big clock in the farmhouse, and maybe the clock at the train station. (Cities had church bells and other time keepers to help.)

The railroads had made great improvements in time keeping in 19th Century America. With precise schedules for trains, time was made more exact. And with tracks crisscrossing the country, time itself became more regulated.

But the average citizen – average soldier – did not have standardized time. Our imaginary Captain Rob Smith might have 7:15 on his watch (which he forgot to wind yesterday) and in Mr. J. Brown’s farmhouse the clock says it’s 7:38 – and the real time might have really been 7:29. Yikes!

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Sunrise_-_George_Inness_-_overall_-_2Sunrise, Sunset – But No Daylight Savings Time

Okay, so the official regiment report claims that the fighting began at sunrise. Piece of cake – call a friend on the east coast (or use the internet). So…on July 3, sunrise is supposed to be at approximately 5:37 A.M. in Pennsylvania. Great!

No, no, no…wait! Modern time doesn’t exactly help us when trying to figure out the real time in 1863. And here’s why. Daylight Savings Time was not instituted until the Great Depression (1930’s), but that’s the time a friend or the internet will tell you when you ask for the sunrise time.

In summer, we’ve sprung forward using Daylight Savings Time, so subtract an hour to find 1863 time. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863, sunrise would’ve been at approximately 4:37 A.M.

One Thing is Fairly Certain

There are all kinds of mysteries in the supposed times of events during the Gettysburg battle. Some have been pretty well unraveled, and historians have lists of unofficial “generally accepted times.”

large clockThere is one event in the three day battle which many soldiers and civilians noted the time, and it was interesting to compare their accounts. While nobody seemed to agree on the exact minutes, most agreed on the basic time. It was a little after 1 P.M. when the huge cannonade began on July 3rd. (This was the artillery barrage which preceded the famous “Pickett’s Charge.”)

Confederate Colonel E.P. Alexander – in charge of the Southern artillery – noted that the first cannon of the attack fired at 1:07 P.M. Civilians weren’t usually quite so precise, but they all said “shortly after one in the afternoon.”

In my book, I took a historical liberty of supposing the Westmore’s large clock and Colonel Alexander’s watch could’ve been set to the same time. Betsy sees that it’s 1:07 when the artillery fire begins. Could that have really happened? Possibly, but not likely – and I know that. But there are events which happen and I’ve looked at a clock and that moment I’ll never forget…I wanted that feeling for Betsy…and 1:07 was the time in a historical account and I decided to use it.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Had you ever considered the importance (and confusion) of time when looking back to historical events?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Blue Gray & Crimson, Gettysburg and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “What Time Was It?” – A Historian’s Challenge

  1. Pingback: Cloudy With A Chance Of Battle | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: Good-bye, Gettysburg (I’ll Miss You) | Gazette665

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