Civil War Quilts
Civil War quilts played important roles in both the North and South.
They were used in the hospital, on the battlefield, and on the home front, but an important question remains:
Were they actually used as flags on the Underground Railroad?
Quilt Patterns and Materials
When examining vintage quilts, it is important to remember that the ones that survive were special and generally do not represent daily life.
Autograph quilts were a popular memento, so many of those survive, but utility quilts had simple designs.
Old dresses and other articles of clothing were recycled into Civil War quilts so that nothing went to waste.
If you are planning to make reproduction Victorian quilts, keep in mind that Turkey red and Prussian blue were commonly available dyes. The only shades of purple available were pale and brownish.
Also, Victorian women were proud of their new and expensive sewing machines, so they did not try to hide machine stitches!
The Underground Railroad
The metaphoric Underground Railroad was a widespread system of safe houses where fugitive slaves could hide while traveling north.
There is a popular belief that quilts were used to signal hidden messages, but no first-hand African-American accounts mention quilts.
There is also a mistaken belief that the log cabin quilt pattern was used as a signal, but it was most popular between 1870 and 1920, after the Civil War. The earliest reference to such as pattern is in connection with Union fundraisers in 1863 when the Underground Railroad escape routes were no longer operating. My source for these facts is Quilts from the Civil War by Barbara Brackman.
It is more accurate to view the log cabin quilt pattern as a sign of allegiance to President Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin. This design became a memorial to the assassinated president, so that is why it was not made in former Confederate states. They did not care to mourn the president whose election caused war to start.
Quilt Use and Abuse
Quilting therapy and knitting socks helped the women left at home to deal with the difficult times. It was something useful and expressive to work on while the loved ones were away.
While some quilts were made with the hope of nursing the sick and wounded, other quilts were stitched to auction off as fundraisers for women’s groups raising money in support of the war.
Many quilts were also used to wrap family treasures hidden inside chests or attics or more unusual places like caves, wells, or buried under logs. Some developed stains from the harsh storage. Others were used by soldiers as a poncho or wrap, or torn up and used for bandages.
Unfortunately, quilts could spread diseases like typhus, so even those that were not torn up may have been destroyed for sanitation purposes.
There were no Confederate printed calico designs because all of the calico factories were located in the North. Since the cotton factories were in the North and imported cloth could not pass through the blockaded ports, many Southern women had to resort to making their own homespun fabric, as the slaves did. There was such as shortage of fabric that carpets were cut up and turned into bedding!
The Gunboat Fairs were held to raise money for the Confederate Navy. The iron-clad Merrimack inspired an interest in developing submarine technology.
In the North, fancy quilts were auctioned off as a fundraiser at anti-slavery fairs. There were many patriotic Civil War quilt patterns to celebrate the Union. Sewing circles and public groups were already a custom, so they adapted to making supplies for soldiers. USSC donations were stamped with a mark to prevent theft.
Sources for Civil War Quilts Information:
The titles Quilts from the Civil War: Nine Projects, Historic Notes, Diary Entries and Southern Quilts: Surviving Relics of the Civil War are two great books I have read myself and highly recommend!
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