Daylight Savings Time and the Civil War

Ah, yes the biannual adjustments of the alarm clock!  George Hudson’s and William Willet’s reminders that even in our mechanized (and now electronically synthesized) world, human beings retain the natural rhythms governed by the rise and set of the sun.  Thus we see fit to bend even the most precise instruments at our disposal with our own little time warps – adjusting so as to enjoy and benefit from a few extra minutes of sunlight. Even the name sounds inviting – Daylight Savings Time! (DST)   As if we are somehow gaining some gilded bonus just by changing the time on the clock.  (And if you can’t tell, this is sarcasm flowing through to my keyboard…)

The poster above is from World War I, when the United States first established DST.   Of course that lasted only a few years.  Although Congress passed DST into law in 1917, by 1919 they’d abolished it (overriding President Wilson’s veto, mind you!).   For reasons perhaps more economic than physiological, decades later the US brought back DST… and continues to tinker with it.

Of course, there was no DST in the Civil War.  Might have aided the respective war efforts, for the very same reasons the belligerents chose to use DST in World War I.  But since the workforce was not tied to commute train schedules, the effect would have been minimal in my humble opinion.

However, we do need to remember DST when considering tactical actions.  Or more precisely, the log of events gleaned from official records, telegrams, and other sources.  At some of the critical summertime battles of the war, their “9 a.m.” is actually our “8 a.m.” today.   So the sesquicentennialists should take that into account when lining up “the moment” to pay homage to a specific action.

Many will scoff at any application of precision to times logged from Civil War dispatches.  They were “earthy” people, you might say, who set their clocks to the rise and fall of the sun!  Well… that is the point.  By the time of the Civil War, the Naval Observatory and other agencies had established tables predicting the sun’s movement (or more accurately, changes with respect to the earth-bound observer).  Such predictions were critical, dating all the way back to the age of Christopher Columbus, for mariners.  Some time back I mentioned these tables when considering the movements at Edwards Ferry in June 1863.

Keep in mind also the planning cycle which used the sunrise/set data.  For a commander planning a foot march, the number of hours of daylight (and extra hours of moonlight given a favorable phase) translated into the number of miles his troops could cover in a day, given standard rates of march.  And that was just the start of the calculations.  “March at dawn” didn’t mean wake up at dawn and start on the road when you get ready.   Rather, the expectation, in most cases, was for the formation to be moving at the known, predicted time of sunrise.   And to meet such expectation, of course the men had to be roused, dressed, fed, etc. before the appointed hour and minute.  Delays translated into miles.  Miles could translate into victory or defeat.

Although the Civil War leaders lacked timepieces synchronized to the rhythm of atoms we carry around today, they were in tune with their clock.  And just like us today, the movement of the sun across the sky was the important factor governing time measure.