Soldiers’ Aid Societies And Their Quilts
It has been stated that “more ink and paper has been devoted to the American Civil War than to any other topic in the English language. Yet the shelves and shelves of books rarely discuss the War from the perspective of the other half of those who lived through it, the women.” In truth, women played many active roles in the Civil War that are scarcely remembered. Women on both sides were filled with patriotism and frustration. In Barbara Brackman’s book, Quilts From The Civil War, it states that the women were “Eager to do something for the cause, they had little to offer but their sons’ and husbands’ lives, their daughters’ dowries, and their own domestic skills. Needlework, chief among their skills, became the war work that most occupied women in the Union and the Confederacy.”
When the war began in April 1861, both armies were ill prepared. Regiments often required that soldiers supply their own uniforms, gear, and bedding. Many men left for battle with a valued patchwork quilt or a hand woven blanket in their pack. Women sent what they had but quickly realized that the rebellion might last longer then first anticipated. They quickly mobilized to form “Soldiers’ Aid Societies”.
Women in the North had long been used to working in groups for worthy causes. Church sociable’s, sewing circles, and other groups were quickly converted into Soldiers’ Aid Societies. It is estimated that more than 20,000 soldiers’ aid societies were formed across the country with two thirds located in the North. This created a need for State and National Organization’s to form, to aid in the collection and distribution of supplies. A few of these organizations include the United States Sanitary Commission(USSC), the Western Sanitary Commission, and the Christian Commission. Approximately 7,000 local Soldiers’ Aid Societies served as auxiliaries to the USSC, the largest private national agency channeling donated supplies to soldiers. Women in the USSC committed themselves to helping any needy soldier, including enemy wounded. While the Federal Government had one great army in the field, it had another at home with the Sanitary Commission, consisting of wives, mothers, sisters, and sweethearts.
The Federal government found itself ill prepared to supply its enormous number of men so rapidly. Clothing and bedding were especially critical, because they were items more difficult to forage for and took a good deal of time to prepare. In addition, they were faced with a shortage of raw materials and many contractors, early on, were producing “shoddy” products. Blankets made of “shoddy” would fall apart when used or became wet.
The need for bedcoverings in military hospitals and camps was so great that Soldiers’ Aid societies began early on to collect all available in their communities. Often, this would include prized fancy quilts and heirloom quilts dating back to the American Revolution. A week after the war began, women in Cleveland collected 729 quilts, comforters, and blankets in a single day to meet the needs of soldiers at nearby Camp Taylor. It didn’t take long before available supplies of bedding and other goods was depleted and the women were forced to produce the never ending demand for additional goods.
By fall 1863, the cost of fabric and raw materials had increased and become more difficult to obtain. Sanitary Fairs were created to generate funds to purchase raw materials and also to purchase other supplies that couldn’t be made. The New York Metropolitan Fair, the largest of all, took place in April 1864 and netted $1,200,000. It should be noted here that finer quality quilts were being made by women in Soldiers’ Aid Societies to be raffled at these fairs.
Requests for donations were made by all means possible, newspaper, circular’s, and word of mouth. The newspaper was also used to publish monthly reports of Soldiers’ Aid Societies. In the Summit Beacon, Oct. 16, 1862, part of the report reads as follows: “The following are the articles donated to the Society: Anna Manly, 3 lbs of bandages, 1 lb of linen, 1 bottle of wine; Mattie Sabin, 2 quilts, 2 lbs of bandages, 1 can of raspberries, 1 jug of wine,1 bag of dried cherries; Flora Hanchett, 1 quilt, 1 lb of bandages; the little girls 14 blocks for patchwork; Laura Balch, 10 handkerchiefs; E.P. Green, 1 piece of cotton cloth; Minnie Wheeler, 1 bag of dried corn, 1 bag of dried cherries; Olive Wheeler, 1 package of magazines; Lizzie Ladd, 10 bandages, 6 compresses, 1/2 lb of lint; Emma Ladd and Lottie Baldwin, 4 blocks for patchwork, 4 bandages, 1 linen table-cloth; Mr. Fay, 5 1/2 lbs of tow; Libbie and Manda Wills, 1 quilt, 6 bandages, 17 compresses, 1/2 lb of lint; Olive Henry, 1 roll of linen, 1 roll of cotton; A Friend, 1 package of lint; Fannie Belden, 1 roll of cotton; Mrs. Scott, 1 roll of linen; Nellie Abbey, 1 can of cherries; Fannie Viele, 1 bag of dried currants; Grace Ferkina, 1 box of lint.
Items to be noted from this report, pertaining to quilts, is that not only were whole quilts being donated, but also patchwork blocks and fabric pieces to be used in the making of other quilts.
Quilts were requested to be of the size for a hospital cot or for a bedroll. One request stated that the quilts should be “of cheap materials, about seven feet long by fifty inches wide.” Another stated they “may be made of old calico or delaine, with cotton quilted firmly between.” SC quilts I have documented, range in size from 65” X 44” up to 84” X 59”.
Hospitals found quilts most welcome and much more preferred to then the rough woolen blankets. In a communication to the USSC, from Surgeon A.G. Hart, he stated “I particularly noticed a large invoice of quilts from your society, received here just when fly-blown blankets could not be endured another day, and one of the most timely of your favors.”
A surgeon from one of the Beaufort hospitals related a story of a soldier who “was given over to die.” Disease and hopelessness combined had robbed him of all energy and fight. In changing his bedding, an old bedspread was replaced with a SC patchwork quilt. It aroused his attention, which nothing else was able to for days. Apparently he found something familiar in the quilt and became thoroughly aroused. Upon examining it more carefully, he “discovered his wife’s name neatly written in one corner.” His outlook was brightened and he rapidly recovered.
Besides hospitals, soldiers in the field (commissioned officers as well), could also requisition supplies from the SC, including quilts. Requisitions show, for example, that Grant’s army received 9,029 sheets and 2,429 comforts from May through August of 1863. They also show that during the month of May 1864, the SC issued 2,932 blankets and 1,203 quilts to the Army in Virginia.
Sanitary Commission quilts were usually simple patterns of the “patchwork” variety. Many of these patchwork were called “album” or “signature” quilts. These would have white or off white pieces in the center of each block where the maker of that block would sign it and/or leave some patriotic or religious message.
It is impossible to know exactly how many quilts and comforters women made and donated in the North during the Civil War. Through extensive research, Virginia Gunn, a professor of clothing, textiles and interiors at the