The Civil War inspired quilters of yesterday and today


Annie B. Darden, the wife of a farmer in the community of Buckhorn, N.C., noted in her diary on March 4, 1861, that Abraham Lincoln was to be inaugurated as president that day, and said this “will cause a dissolution of our Union.”

As Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel recorded in “Southern Quilts: Surviving Relics of the Civil War,” two weeks later, Darden wrote, “I have finished all the squares for my quilt. I think I shall call it a ‘disunion quilt,’ as it will be made different from any I ever saw.”

Ramsey and Waldvogel set out to “unlock some of the secrets” of quilts that have survived since the Civil War. This could be done, they believed, by interpreting various characteristics by which a profile emerges to “capture something of a quilt’s life story.”

For example, a doctor searching for survivors after a bloody battle in North Carolina came across a dead mule that had a saddle with a quilt as a saddle blanket. He noted it was a quilt that could have been found in a fine Southern home at the time, but served a more practical and necessary purpose in wartime. The quilt was of superior quality and survives to this day.

Fundraisers and fairs were often held to benefit the Sanitary Commission, a USO-type organization that provided medical care and personal comforts for Union soldiers. Groups of women got together to roll bandages and sew uniforms, and they gathered quilts and blankets to be distributed to the troops.

Well-known Civil War diarist Mary Chestnut described Southern women also gathering together to make quilts that were put up for sale at auction to the highest bidder, with proceeds used for the soldiers’ welfare.

One Southern lady quilter was engaged in a dangerous pursuit. Although captured while serving as a Rebel spy in Tennessee, Mary High cleverly disposed of incriminating evidence and was released — thereby spared the fate of her fellow spy and fiancé, who was convicted and hung.

Having survived, she honored Confederate soldiers by making quilts that bore their names.

Another author, Barbara Brackman, decided to clarify, if not put to rest, stories about how quilts were used as signals for slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. In “Quilts from the Civil War,” she relates, “No first-hand accounts by African-Americans reveal any mention of quilts as devices to indicate safety, danger or recognition.” Nevertheless, these stories prevail to this day.

Brackman’s book focuses on a variety of Civil War patterns, such as Union and secession quilts, quilts from Soldiers’ Aid Societies and commemorative quilts. Her objective is to encourage readers to make a connection to the women of the Civil War era by copying their quilts.

Karla Menaugh joined Barbara Brackman in the publication of “Butternut & Blue: Threads of the Civil War.” The authors highlight a letter from a woman that cites the condition of Rebel prisoners of war: “They were a motley set, dressed in garments of every conceivable style, material and color. … Around some, dirty old bed quilts were thrown.”

The authors provided guidance for making reproduction quilts of those that were of Southern homespun fabrics; wools or wool/cotton plains, plaids and checks. Quilt patterns include names such as Midnight Garden, Our Flag and Road to Richmond.

To that mix, Kathleen Tracy contributes “Remembering Adelia: Quilts Inspired by Her Diary.” Tracy discovered a journal, dated 1861, by Adelia Thomas — a young woman from a farming community in northern Illinois. Sewing and quilting was a typical part of her life, and allowed her to make something useful for men who had gone off to fight in the war.

Tracy honors these quilt makers from the past by creating patterns inspired by Adelia’s diary notations. These include Lincoln’s Platform, Peony Star, Orange Peel and Turkey Tracks.

These publications serve to commemorate the creative work by women on the home front during the years 1861 to 1865. As Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel observed, “If only these quilts could talk, could tell us their stories, what a lot we would learn.”

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (available at Bethany Beach Books). It is a History & Military Book Club selection, and rated five stars on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.