In 1861, with the Civil War at Washington’s doorstep, President Lincoln was haunted by an terrifying dream foretelling his own assassination. Years later, on their last day together in 1865, Lincoln and his wife shared their dreams for the future over a carriage ride. She wished to see the European capitals and he hoped to take in California’s gold mines. Later that night, as the assassin’s bullet cut short the president’s life, Lincoln’s premonition from four years earlier came true.
That poignant piece of history is just part of the documentary, Lincoln’s Washington at War, airing Saturday at 1 pm on the Smithsonian Channel. The new documentary, which premiered earlier this week on President’s Day, features the American History Museum’s Harry Rubenstein, curator and author of Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life, and follows the transformation of the country’s capital in the midst of a national conflict.
Rubenstein has long been interested in Lincoln. As part of the 2009 team that took apart a gold pocket watch that once belonged to Lincoln, he helped confirm a long-held rumor that a watchmaker had scrawled a secret message behind the dial. The watchmaker, Jonathon Dillon, was repairing the watch in his shop on the day Fort Sumter was attacked by Confederate forces and the Civil War began and later told the New York Times he had left his own premonitory message, “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”
In truth, the message was much plainer (“Jonathan Dillon 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”). But Lincoln unknowingly carried the hopeful blessing with him, in his pocket, inside the gold chamber of his pocket watch, throughout the war.
Both Dillon and Lincoln’s fateful visions would come true, transforming a country and its capital forever.