Quilts and Textiles Illuminate the American Civil War in Daughter of the Regiment
“Textiles are integral to the story of the American Civil War. They touched the lives of all Americans, from raw material to finished product, in field, factory, and household” (Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War, Shaw and Basset). In other words, there’s much more to telling the story of the Civil War than the military uniforms that are often the centerpiece of Civil War museum exhibits. Uniforms tell only a small part of the story.
When the war began, neither the Union nor the Confederacy was equipped to outfit their armies and doing so required a lot more than uniforms. Women stepped up, both as hired workers and as volunteers. Ladies sewing societies were already an integral part of the culture. With the declaration of war, these societies quickly took on textile production “for the cause.” They created regimental flags and made uniforms. They collected quilts and comforters, and when the existing supply ran out, they made both. They knitted socks (one southern woman knitted 100 pairs between June of 1862 and June of 1863) and mittens (after an especially designed pattern allowing for a trigger finger) and stitched hospital shirts and drawers. They scraped lint and rolled bandages. Some societies called themselves “needle regiments,” for they were well aware that their efforts were a critical part of the war effort. Statistics prove they were right. For example, women of the Western Sanitary Commission sent General Grant’s army 3,000 shirts, 3,000 drawers, and over 4,000 bandages—in one month.
In 1861, the United States Sanitary Commission was organized to facilitate the delivery of goods to the men in the field. As the war went on, the Sanitary Commission expanded its efforts, training nurses to staff hospitals, providing and staffing convalescent facilities for the wounded, and organizing a delivery system for troop mail. While men are named as the officers in each of the sanitary commission organizations, reading the minutes of the meetings provides evidence that women were the “boots on the ground” in the effort.
After President Lincoln called for the creation of the Sanitary Commission, Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge, leaders of the Northwest Branch of Chicago had an idea for a “sanitary fair” to benefit soldiers. The ten-day Northwestern Soldier’s Fair held in Chicago in 1863 raised over $100,000. That success inspired more Sanitary Fairs. The fairs drew huge crowds, and textiles figured largely in the goods presented for sale or raffle. In 1864, the Western Sanitary Commission’s Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, netted over half a million dollars for the benefit of Union soldiers.
Raffle quilts were popular at Sanitary Fairs. One such quilt currently on display at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. bears the signatures of 56 prominent individuals including President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In the south, raffle quilts known as “Gunboat Quilts” reportedly raised funds for three gunboats.
After the war, textiles continued to play a role in women’s relief efforts directed at war refugees, former slaves, and families whose husbands-fathers-brothers returned home with permanent disabilities. In Lexington, Missouri, a Methodist Episcopal church bazaar raised over $200 with a quilt raffle. The quilt, a log-cabin pattern with the words “Feed the Hungry” as part of its design, benefited the impoverished families of former Confederate soldiers.
Textiles are an integral part of my 19th century story worlds. In fact, the purchase of a box of “rags” at a farm sale on a hot day one June was part of the journey that led to my first novel. At the bottom of that box of rags, a set of unfinished quilt blocks made me wonder why. Why weren’t they ever finished? What happened to the maker? Mulling over the possible answers to that question while researching the lives of the women who settled the Great Plains resulted in my first novel, Walks the Fire. In the novel, pioneer Jesse King stashes some unfinished quilt blocks in an unexpected place. When her wagon is destroyed in a buffalo stampede the story begins; a story inspired by the life of an unknown woman whose handwork crossed time and, a century later, inspired a novel intended to pay tribute to women who traveled the Oregon Trail.
Imagining “the woman behind the thing” also inspired my spring 2015 release, Daughter of the Regiment. I had always resisted the idea of a Civil War novel, because the breadth and depth of the topic intimidated me. But then I attended a museum exhibit about Missouri in the Civil War—twice. Alongside the uniforms and weapons and battle stories, artifacts produced by women spoke to me. I learned about women involved in resistance efforts as Confederate sympathizers. Women working in munitions factories. Women organizing the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair. The kind of women who, when the U.S. Sanitary Commission requested cot-size quilts the soldiers could also use as bedrolls, responded by making an estimated 150,000-250,000 quilts.
I began to read about women’s roles in the Civil War. Ironically, the study eventually took me back to the subject of uniforms—uniforms worn by women known as Daughters of the Regiment, a military role in the tradition of the vivandières who served with the French army in the Crimean War. I “met” Kady Brownell of Rhode Island who “dressed in a modified military uniform: a light-colored blouse, a knee-length dark-colored full skirt with tasseled sash, trousers and boots.” Fascinated, I kept studying, catching glimpses of these women mentioned in soldiers’ letters and mentioned in contemporary newspapers. On parade with her regiment, one daughter (unnamed in the reference) wore “a blue jacket trimmed with gold lace and sporting military buttons; a scarlet skirt trimmed with gold and blue lace; white pants and a white vest; boots and white kid gloves; and a blue velvet hat decorated with lace and yellow feathers.” Lizzie Clawson Jones, daughter of the 6th Massachusetts, wore “a hat decorated with red, white, and blue feathers on one side and a gilt wreath with the numeral 6 at its center” presented to her by the regiment.
A vivandière costume in the collection of the National Museum of American History inspired the cover costume for my novel Daughter of the Regiment. The contemporary version echoes the original’s dark blue wool, red accents, lace collar, triple row of gilt buttons, and full skirt worn over trousers. My fictional Daughter of the Regiment, Maggie Malone, is an Irish immigrant who serves alongside her brothers with Missouri’s Irish Brigade. Maggie’s character was inspired by daughters like Michigan’s Annie Etheridge, who was awarded a pension for her wartime service and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
This is what I do. Often inspired by an antique textile, I seek out the real history behind the object and inject imaginary friends into authentic times and places, always doing my best to faithfully represent the past. Historical fiction is time travel at its best.
About the Contributor: Stephanie Grace Whitson is the author of over twenty-seven titles. A frequent ECPA bestseller, Whitson is a RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Winner and a two-time Christy Award finalist. When she isn’t writing, speaking, or trying to keep up with her five grown children and perfect grandchildren, she loves to take long-distance rides aboard her Honda Magna motorcycle named Kitty. Her church and the International Quilt Study Center and Museum take up the rest of her free time. She received her Master of Arts degree in history in 2012. Stephanie and her husband reside in southeastern Nebraska. Her newest historical fiction, Daughter of the Regiment, is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Books-A-Million.com.
Posted by Claire Morris