Published: August 17, 2012
Textiles to clothe and comfort, to shelter and communicate or merely adorn present a thoughtful perspective on the Civil War in the exhibition “Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War” at the American Textile History Museum.
Now in a sesquicentennial commemoration at the museum, some 150 textile objects used on the battlefront and at home give life to the accounts and imagery of the Civil War. These artifacts illuminate the sacrifice and heroism, the mourning and the ultimate uneasy reconciliation of North and South. They provide a further glimpse into the political and economic tensions over shipping, commerce and import tariffs and slave labor that led to secession and then war. Light is also shed on the international implications of the war.
By the mid-Nineteenth Century, cotton was king and not just in the South †it was a major driver of the American economy. The stereotypical view of the industrial North and the agricultural South is just that, a stereotype. Merchants, bankers, industrialists, mariners and whalers, planters and weavers, North and South alike, were involved in the textile industry. Moreover, antebellum friendships and family and business relationships were entwined deeply between Northerners and Southerners.
Yet another stereotype is dispelled: While the slave trade certainly involved rum, it was more about textiles †cotton, wool, linen and silk ⁴han rum, although rum certainly sweetened the deal. The triangle trade involved West Indian sugar that was shipped to England or New England and distilled into rum. The profits were used to buy manufactured goods that were shipped to England and Europe, then traded in West Africa for slaves, who were sold ultimately to Southern plantation owners.
In another permutation, New England ships transported cotton from the South to New England mills where it was finished and shipped to Europe and the profits used to buy slaves who were sold in the South. The 1860 census numerated almost four million enslaved people, most of them born in the United States and most working in Southern cotton fields.
During the Civil War, military forces were the greatest consumers of cloth. Uniforms, badges, flags, tents, bedding and bandages drove the mills of both sides to fevered production. Wartime disruption of shipping, first by a Southern boycott and then by a Union blockade, prevented the delivery of cotton bales to mills in Northern England, causing a major depression of the textile market and widespread unemployment there.
Textile manufacturers on both sides worked overtime to meet the increased demand for supplies. Some produced fine products; others, chasing the quick profit, made shoddy, an inferior product made of cast off cloth that was rendered and respun or woven into new fabric. Since then, the name entered the lexicon to denote poor quality goods. Jean, on the other hand, was a durable twill used for work clothes and also to clothe the military. It remains ubiquitous.
In the North, the production of canvas was an antebellum New England mainstay, supplying sail lofts. Canvas was also used for tents, wagon covers, covers for foodstuffs, camp beds, navy hammocks and hospital beds. It facilitated the movement of all goods.
Women on the homefront sent their soldiers off to war with stitched cotton, wool and silk articles, clothing and other objects with poignant patriotic and military designs and reminders of home and their loved ones. They made similar objects for use at home. Such objects include the quilt an Illinois mother made from the Confederate gray and Union blue uniforms of her two sons who fought on opposite sides.
The quilts that went off to war with soldiers were stitched lovingly, often with patriotic designs and personal messages from home. They proved to be somewhat impractical on the battlefield and not as warm as the government-issued wool blankets. Some were sent home and survived, others were destroyed by their owners to make sure the enemy did not benefit from them. Most of those on display in the exhibition are antebellum or postwar examples.
Cotton, wool and linen were the fabrics most often used. Silk, less plentiful but stronger, was desirable. It came mostly from England and the Continent, although there were several experiments in silk and sericulture. One such operation began in 1832 when William H. Gardner planted mulberry trees on Nantucket. By 1836, the Atlantic Silk Company began to weave silk, mixed silk and cotton and sewing silk. An abolitionist handkerchief from about 1837 is attributed to the Atlantic Silk Company. Such images were sold at antislavery fairs or given away in abolitionist churches. A similar silk making operation set up in Northampton, Mass.
Later quilts memorialized the war and its lost soldiers. A silk Veteran’s Memorial log cabin quilt was pieced and embroidered with 522 names of Civil War veterans by Eleanor O’Brien Arless in Montreal around 1893. A Vermont native, she lost three brothers in the war.
In the urban North, where benevolent sewing circles already existed to support the poor and other needful causes, those groups shifted to sewing and knitting for Union troops. Southern women were equally dedicated, but their culture made community sewing projects more problematic. The distance between plantations meant that women often worked in isolation or with the seamstresses on their plantation. Some aristocratic women did not wish to mix with women of the middle and lower classes; some would sew only for officers. Still others on both sides would sew only for soldiers of their own region. As the war effort became more organized, sewing circles gave many women occupation, paid and voluntary, while their loved ones were at the front. They supplied modest but much needed income for those whose soldiers were hospitalized, imprisoned or dead.
To facilitate an orderly distribution of the output of the hundreds of sewing circles, the North organized the United States Sanitary Commission to accept contributions from aid societies in loyal states and other countries, and to distribute the materials to Union soldiers through an efficient system of depots. Sanitary fairs sprung up in which raffles and competitions of finished products raised impressive amounts money for war efforts. Their success and the resultant profits were so great that in the end men took over the management.
Still, despite the efforts of tens of thousands of women, their efforts were not enough to supply the great quantities need to clothe and shelter the troops.
On the battlefront, troops followed the flag. Flags and banners identified states and military units, proclaimed allegiance, expressed patriotism and boosted morale. Although they were produced in quantity in mills, women stitched others that supported the troops and rallied those at home. Fabric printed with military and patriotic designs were made in Northern mills or for Confederate consumers at French and English mills. Until 1865 when Congress enacted a law that US flags must be made of American-made cloth, most fabric used to make flags was imported. A US flag in the exhibition was the first to be made in 1865 at the Middlesex Manufacturing Company in Lowell, owned partially by General Benjamin Franklin Butler. It was presented to Abraham Lincoln days before his assassination.
Surviving quilts memorialize, mourn, express patriotism and exemplify community effort. Design elements are frequently regional. The appliqué quilt by Susan Robb was made around 1862 when her two stepsons joined the Confederate army. Blocks of pomegranate and tulips surround a mariner’s compass that depicts two rows of soldiers marching under the Confederate flag.
A Rose of Sharon appliqué quilt in the exhibit was made around 1843 by Eliza Ann Raney of Lebanon, Ky., who cut and stitched the appliqué, but left the quilting and stitching to family slaves to perform after their day’s work.
Union supporter Nancy Morgan of Letcher County, Ky., wove an overshot quilt using wool from sheep she had raised. When it, along with most of her food and bedding, was confiscated by opposing forces, the mother of nine took herself to the Confederate camp where she confronted the commander and demanded the return of her goods. Some were returned, including the coverlet that is on view.
Amid the fever of sending their men to war with necessities, Northern women, inspired by images of the British in India, produced havelocks, white linen or cotton caps with flaps to protect the neck from the Southern sun. Patterns were published and hundreds were made and shipped. Soldiers on both sides found them uncomfortable and unmanly and they were torn up for bandages or cleaning rags. That particular craze was supplanted by one for lint to pack wounds †even though the practice only fostered infection. Women busied themselves making lint and rolling bandages †the latter of which was useful, the former not. One Dr G.E. Post devised a patent bandage roller, which facilitated the process.
One of the greatest necessities on both sides of the war were socks. Constant wear on the march required constant resupply. Women at home took up their knitting needles and home knitting machines were available to some. Factories turned out knitted tubes; women were engaged to finish them with toes and heels.
While the artifacts that do survive are rare, they provide great insight into the wide ranging effects and participation on the part of the people on both sides.
“Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War” was curated by Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett, who are the authors of the richly detailed catalog of the same name that accompanies the exhibit. The curators acknowledge the assistance of hundreds of people and institutions that contributed to this exhaustive project.
“Homefront & Battlefield” is at the American Museum of Textile History through November 25. The American Museum of Textile History is at 491 Dutton Street. For information, www.amth.org or 978-441-0400.
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