Thursday, May 15, 2014

Stitching Together Civil War History

By Eve M. Kahn, June 29, 2012

Fabric supplies were crucial for both sides in the Civil War, so the Northern  soldiers invading the South would expressly set out to trash cotton fields and burn textile factories.

To cut off the Confederate Army from access to new uniforms, tents and bedding, the Union troops even kidnapped female knitters, weavers and seamstresses and deported them northward. “You don’t just let them stay there so they can move a hundred miles south and work in another mill,” said Madelyn Shaw, a curator of the exhibition "Homefront & Battlefield Quilts & Context in the Civil War,"  in 2012 at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass.

Ms. Shaw and her co-curator, Lynne Zacek Bassett, traveled to private and public collections on and off for three years. They studied all aspects of Civil War-era fabrics, including abolitionists’ slogans on silk handkerchiefs, plantation owners’ deals with Rhode Island mills for rough wool to clothe slaves, and French exports of shirts patterned with crisscrossing Confederate flags.

Two dozen quilts and about 125 related objects are on view, and the wall texts and catalog are full of irony and pathos. Union soldiers found family monograms stitched on Southern sandbags, which wealthy women on plantations had desperately sewn out of their costliest tablecloths and pillowcases. Northern department stores did a brisk business in mourning fabrics, used to make black dresses, veils and bunting for doorways and mirrors.

Confederate and Union sympathizers on the home front would send delicate gifts of pin cushions and mittens to the battlefields, and the extras were sometimes just abandoned at campsites when knapsacks grew too heavy. Troops also found weird uses for nonessential fabrics. The museum has borrowed a floral cotton bandanna that a Kentucky cavalryman used to “tie his boots together and hang them around his neck while he crept silently past the guards during his escape from Camp Douglas, Ill.,” the curators write in the catalog.

During three years of research, however, the curators found that not all wartime legends about antiques turned out to be true. A few quilts long believed to have been used to wrap prisoners of war and dead bodies were actually made of 1880s textiles. “Memory is fallible,” Ms. Shaw said. “Labels get lost or pinned to the wrong thing.”

A recent book, "Civil War Quilts" (Schiffer Publishing), by the historians Pam Weeks and Don Beld, explains how girls and women sewed scraps into flag patterns and added generals’ names, poems and slogans in indelible ink. A Sunday school teacher in Maine inscribed her address on a quilt sent for use in Washington hospitals, so the wounded could correspond and encourage her students to keep sewing. “Your letters would prompt us to more exertions for our patriots,” she wrote, asking to have the textile returned if it survived the war. (It now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution.)

Twenty blankets made by the sisters and mothers of soldiers were on view at the Illinois State Museum’s Chicago gallery, in "Civil War Era Quilts From the Illinois State Museum." “ One checkerboard contains fragments of Union and Confederate uniforms; family lore has it that the quilter had relatives serving on both sides. An 1870s blanket with a star pattern was formed from 14,320 pieces by a wounded veteran who sewed alongside his new bride as a form of postwar therapy.

IMAGE: A quilt from Pennsylvania illustrating the life of a Civil War Zouave-unit soldier, at the American Textile History Museum.



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