Family and personal background
The second son of United States Minister to Austria Henry Miller Watts and Anna Maria Schoenberger, Ethelbert Watts was born in Philadelphia. He was a great-grandson of Revolutionary War brigadier-general Frederick Watts, and also of lieutenant colonel Henry Miller (1751–1824), who led colonial army units in the siege of Boston and the engagements of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. He was the nephew of President Ulysses S. Grant's Commissioner of Agriculture (and the first president of the board of trustees of what is now Penn State University), Frederick Watts.
Ethelbert was educated in Paris, then at the University of Pennsylvania. His junior year at Penn was interrupted in 1863 by Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in the Civil War. He enlisted as private in Company D, Thirty-second Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. Only seventeen years old, his service was limited to the 32nd Regiment Emergency Militia Infantry, which existed from June 26 to August 1, 1863, and performed duties in the Department of the Susquehanna until Lee was driven from the Commonwealth after the Battle of Gettysburg.
After graduating from Penn he studied at the Royal Saxon School of Mines, Freiberg, Saxony. Returning to Philadelphia, he was engaged in the iron business in which his father had extensive interests. Henry M. Watts & Sons became the owners of Marietta Furnace No. 2 in Marietta, Pennsylvania.
In 1871 Mr. Watts wed Emily Pepper, daughter of Dr. William Pepper, Sr. and sister of Dr. William Pepper, Jr. of Philadelphia. They had four children: Ethel Constance Watts (Mrs. Clark Mellen), Marian Watts, Henry Miller Watts, and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral William Carleton Watts. Emily Watts died in 1885.
In 1895 Watts married Katharine L. Gregg. They had two children: Francis Watts (Mrs. Theodosius Stevens), and Ethelbert Watts, Jr. (who would become an intelligence officer during World War II and military liaison officer during the Cold War).
His great-granddaughter is actress Elizabeth McGovern.
The next year Watts was appointed vice and deputy consul-general at Cairo, Egypt, where he was in charge during the Spanish-American War. While there he was instrumental in preventing the Spanish fleet, under Admiral Camara, from coaling at Port Said, before hurrying through the Suez Canal to attack Admiral Dewey's fleet at Manila Bay. Watts dissuaded Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer, the British counsel-general in Egypt, from permitting Camara to access coal owned by Spain, while at the same time acquiring a lien over coal available in Suez from other sources. The Spanish fleet's inability to obtain coal in Egypt resulted in the fleet being ordered back to Spain. Before leaving this post, he was decorated by the Khedive with the Order of Osmanieh. During the next two years he was consul-general at Kingston, Jamaica, and from there went to Prague, Bohemia.
While at Prague he accepted the position of consul-general at St. Petersburg, which was then the capital of the Russian Empire and its largest city. He served there from 1903 to 1907, a turbulent period that included the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905. In recognition of his services in protecting Japanese interests in Russia during that war, he was decorated by the Emperor of Japan with the Order of the Rising Sun and with that of the Sacred Treasure.
World War I
From April 1907 to April 1917, he was consul-general at Brussels, Belgium. World War I raged during the last two and one-half years of that period, when the German Empire occupied Brussels and much of Belgium. Both before and after the German occupation, Mr. Watts was instrumental in protecting the interests of American citizens, as well as representing and caring for British and Japanese interests and those of other belligerents. When the United States entered the war in 1917 all consular offices in German-occupied Belgium were discontinued, and Mr. Watts was ordered home.
He was acting consul at Halifax, Nova Scotia (in maritime Canada), on December 6, 1917, when the SS Mont-Blanc, a vessel loaded with munitions, exploded in the harbor, razing a large section of the city. The U.S. consular offices, located within three blocks of the waterfront, were wrecked, but Watts managed to survive because, at the time of the explosion, he was late for work.
- Sons of the Revolution, Annual Proceedings - 1920 at p. 71 (obituary of Ethelbert Watts).
- Samuel P. Bates, History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Vol. 5, p. 1248 (1869-71); Pennsylvania State Archives, Civil War Veterans' Card File, 1861-1866, accessed 2010-10-16.
- The Civil War Archives - Union Regimental Histories - Pennsylvania, accessed 2010-10-17.
- Marietta Furnaces, from The Furnaces of Rivertownes website, accessed 2010-10-16.
- Ingeborg Brigitte Gastel, "Descendants of Dietrich Seckel," worldroots.com genealogy archive, accessed 2010-09-26.
- "Society in Washington," New York Times 1902-04-17 at p. 9.
- "Pennsylvania Appointments,” The Daily Times, New Brunswick (NJ), 1896-03-10 at p. 3.
- French Ensor Chadwick, "The relations of the United States and Spain: the Spanish-American War," Volume 2, p. 388 (1911).
- "Persons in the Foreground: the Greatest Proconsul of this Age," Current Literature, pp. 495, 498 (January 1908).
- "New Consul at Kingston, Jamaica," New York Times, 1899-11-01.
- (Untitled), New York Times, 1907-05-27.
- "500 Refugees Ask Aid," New York Times, 1914-09-11.
- ”Fear for Consul,” Anniston (AL) Star, 1917-12-07 at 3.
- “No Americans were Killed at Halifax,” Fort Wayne (IN) Journal-Gazette, 1917-12-10 at p. 7.
- "Americans Escape Death at Halifax; Being Two Minutes Late Saves Consul General," New York Times, 1917-12-10.