Washington's Gold Watch in Civil War Tennessee

In August 1862, twenty-five year old Second Lieutenant Joseph Bell Newton of Co. B of the 14th Ohio found himself seated next to William Hawkins Polk, the younger brother of former President James Knox Polk. While the two men discussed the history of the rebellion in Tennessee (Polk was an ardent Union supporter), Polk showed Newton his most prized possession: a gold watch once owned by George Washington. For Newton, the sight of this treasured relic from the founding of the nation connected his efforts to reunite the Union to those struggles of Revolutionary times. 
Colonel George Washington in uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Washington served on Braddock's staff and it was during this association (1754-1755) that Braddock presented Washington with the gold watch Newton saw in 1862. How William H. Polk came into possession of the watch is a mystery; his grandfather Ezekiel Franklin Polk had served in the Revolution, mainly in the Carolinas, at no time serving with Washington. Ironically, Ezekiel had sought refuge with Lord Cornwallis when Cornwallis marched through North Carolina in 1780. 

This is a short story but it neatly ties the heritage of three presidents (Washington, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk) into a chance meeting aboard a railroad coach in Tennessee during the Civil War. 

“In August last I happened to fall into his company while passing on the railroad from Nashville to Columbia, the place of his residence. From him I heard much of the history of the rebellion in this part of the state, but among my recollections of that brief and interesting intercourse was an object of ante-revolutionary history in his possession which occupied a prominence. He was owner of and usually carried on his person the gold watch which was presented by General [Edward] Braddock to George Washington, then a colonel in the colonial service. He also had the letter from Braddock accompanying the gift. On the inside of the outer case of the watch was engraved the initials “G.W.” The high estimation in which the deceased held this gift [Polk died December 16, 1862 and Newton wrote his account December 26, 1862] and his faithful adherence to those wise counsels given by its original owner as a legacy to a free people proved him to be a worthy depository."
William Hawkins Polk
Polk died at the age of 47 and is buried in Columbia, Tennessee

"The possession of a relic so sacred cannot be without its influence. It carried the imagination back to a period both anterior and coeval with the birth of a great nation and associates itself with names long since identified with its once brilliant promises. Surviving the changes of time, it still beats in harmony with the passing years and pulsates healthily amid the surging, agitating floods that now reels our old ship of state. Its dial is checkered with the events of a century, many of which are suggestive of most serious thought. It recalls the image of our Washington, revives those patriotic impulses which his memory should always inspire, awakens a just solicitude for our future and inoculates the true man with that spirit which animated its former possessor," wrote Newton.

"And I may add that the hero who now sleeps at the Hermitage [Andrew Jackson] near the scene of my present writing [Gallatin, Tennessee] when the fullness of his inflexible will he crushed the monster [secession], and heralded his emphatic and defiant announcement of our political axiom: ‘The Union- it must and shall be preserved," he concluded.
President James K. Polk and his wife Sarah Childress Polk.

William Hawkins Polk (1815-1862) was the second youngest sibling of James Knox Polk, the 11th President of the United States. The elder Polk was a dark horse candidate for the Democratic Party in the 1844 election and his four year term (1845-1849) was marked by national expansion and the Mexican War, in which William H. Polk served as a major in the 3rd U.S. Dragoons. President Polk died in his home in Nashville, Tennessee just four months after leaving office and his widow Sarah survived him by 43 years. During the Civil War, Mrs. Polk was provided protection by both Confederate and Union armies and both sides respected her neutrality in the civil conflict. 

William H. Polk had studied at the University of North Carolina and entered into the practice of law in Columbia, Tennessee. He also enjoyed an active political life, serving for a time in the Tennessee legislature, ambassador to Naples, and a term in Congress. A lifelong Democrat like his elder brother, William lobbied for the election of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential campaign. He was the Unionist candidate for governor of Tennessee in the election of 1861 and lost that contest by a landslide to Isham B. Harris. Polk had a mixed record on opposing secession and advocated that Tennessee should defend itself against Federal troops, but eventually devoted his efforts to assisting Unionists in Tennessee and served on the staff of General Thomas L. Crittenden. He died of illness on December 16, 1862 and his sister-in-law Sarah Childress Polk, President Polk's widow, arranged for his burial in Columbia which was then in Confederate possession. 

Source: Daily Toledo Blade, January 14, 1863, pg. 2 [Joseph Bell Newton (1837-1905) eventually was promoted to the rank of captain and served on brigade staff, surviving the war. He returned home to Wood County, Ohio and had an extensive business career, serving several terms as county auditor, working as a farmer, accountant, and later president of the Buckeye Glass Company. His home is one of the masterpieces of gas-boom architecture in Bowling Green.] 


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