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A Peculiar Style of Life-Saving Appliance

“Lightning is said not to strike twice in the same place,“ speculated the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper in 1913, “but bullets are different. While they may not strike exactly in the same place, proof is positive in Seattle that they do sometimes perform the same strange feat with very similar results.”

On June 20th, the paper printed a story telling a tale of how a Seattle attorney, P. V. Davis, had his life saved from a stray revolver bullet by a happenstance of astronomical odds. After reading the story the following day, Seattle Civil War veteran George Lowe Camp entered the newspaper’s offices with a tale nearly identical to that of Davis, but that had occurred 50 years earlier. The pair of men had both their lives saved from fatal bullet wounds by what the paper termed “a peculiar style of life-saving appliance”...a pocket watch.

On Sunday, June 15, 1913, Davis and his wife visited friends at Juanita, a community across Lake Washington to the east of Seattle. While Davis and his companions were taking a pleasant after-dinner stroll, a conflict erupted among members of another party also in the Juanita park, and gunfire ensued. At that moment, Davis felt himself struck by a bullet and believed himself to be wounded. After a hasty search of his person he realized he was amazingly unharmed. It was a little while later that he discovered the watch in his pocket had been smashed and damaged and had also absorbed the bullet’s impact before it could penetrate Davis’ chest. The Post-Intelligencer published the remarkable tale. This was a story George Camp could relate to from his service with the 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

George Camp at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offices in 1913

Nearly fifty years prior, on the afternoon November 25, 1863, the men of the 92nd Ohio began their part in the extraordinary attack against Confederate forces at Missionary Ridge. The portion of the ridge that the 92nd ascended was among the steepest and roughest terrain along the entire line of assault. It was a difficult climb even if it were undefended. The fire of Confederate musketry and artillery from fortified positions atop the ridge made it a severe undertaking. The 92nd and the rest of Brigadier nGeneral John Turchin’s brigade steadily progressed onward, even as the Confederate forces uphill from them fought “like demons.” It took over an hour for the regiment to cover the single mile of distance from where the attack began from rifle pits at the base of the ridge until they reached their target. Ultimately, they were successful in capturing the ridge and a number of artillery pieces, routing Confederate forces as a result.

The Union assault on Missionary Ridge

George Camp, however, was not among those who had made it to the crest. Just 150 yards short of the summit, approaching the rebel line he was struck by a Confederate bullet and hurled 10 feet backwards and down the hill. He was knocked unconscious by the force of the bullet hitting him in the upper body and he was carried from the field by his comrades. Incredibly, he had not actually been wounded. The rebel bullet passed through eight layers of his blanket roll and his jacket, but struck and embedded itself in a silver pocket watch he was carrying, forcefully sending Camp tumbling but not wounding him. He somehow kept possession of the timepiece with the rebel bullet buried in its center. The watch’s “future usefulness as a marker of time was destroyed,” but Camp continued to carry the watch throughout the rest of the war, including the March to the Sea.

George Camp as a member of Company G, 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

In the decades after the war, Camp carefully preserved a number of souvenirs of the war that he had retained, his life-saving silver pocket watch treasured most of all. He kept it in a butternut wood box which he had carved specifically for the purpose of storing the battered watch and minie ball. The Post-Intelligencer described the watch as Camp displayed it to the staff that June morning in 1913, saying, “He shows a watch whose face is quite as much knocked about as the one Mr. Davis is keeping as a memento of his good luck. The watch has an army bullet embedded in it, whose works it practically replaces.” He stated, “But for my watch I would not be here today. I shall always keep that battered watch and the minie ball as mementos of the victorious fight for preservation of the Union” and was keenly aware that he had lived a “charmed life.” Camp frequently brought the watch out to show his comrades and it was even noted in a description of Seattle’s 1917 Memorial Day parade. Among Civil War veterans that day to be carried by automobile in the procession was “G. L. Camp, who still carries a watch in which a bullet that saved his life at the battle of Missionary Ridge is embedded.” When he visited the Post-Intelligencer offices on June 20th, the departure of Seattle’s veterans by train for the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg was just days away. He expressed that “he would like to take his magic watch and its accompanying souvenirs to Gettysburg,“ but his service saw him in the Western Theater and he was not eligible to attend the event.”

George Camp's bullet-struck pocket watch

As well known as George Camp may have been in Seattle for his Confederate bullet laden watch, it was perhaps the lack of protection provided by such a “life-saving appliance” from a gunshot of his own that Seattleites of his time may have best known him for. He was certainly an interesting figure among Seattle’s Civil War veterans, residing there until his death in 1918.

Guest contributor Richard Heisler is the founder of Seattle's Civil War Legacy, which is a public history project dedicated to the study and sharing of the histories of Seattle's thousands of Civil War veterans, covering both their wartime experiences and their time in Seattle in the decades following the conflict,

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