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Civil War Quilts

by Kelly Ann Butterbaugh

The American Civil War (1861-1865) left a profound effect upon the country in every realm, and quilting was no exception.  As men left for war, homes were overrun with soldiers, and life was turned upside down, women were left home with their prayers and their needles. 

            It was through their quilts that women served as narrators of history.  Through the fabrics of the quilts women found a way to convey their feelings and fears about the politics of the time period.  While historians often must resort to personal diaries and letters to find the true words of women during this time period, scholars also look to their quilts to find their words within their patterns.

            During the 1800s many quilt patterns were renamed for the political events occurring.  This renaming served as a method for women of all states to express their concerns and ideas.  They served as nothing more than representations of the events of the times, much as quilt patterns have always been.

            According to quilt historian Kimberly Wulfert, “Quilt patterns have been named and renamed through time to reflect personal beliefs and involvements of the time.”           

Prewar Tensions           

During the period leading up to the Civil War, the concern for slavery could be seen in northern women’s quilts.   As early as the 1830s, anti-slavery statements began to find their way onto northern quilts.  One antislavery poem inscribed on a northern quilt during this time read "...I'd sooner spend my days within/ Some dark and dismal cave/ Than to be guilty of the sin/ Of holding one poor slave." 

            Quilt patterns began to be renamed to reflect the growing concern of the women in America.  Despite the well-known story of quilts aiding slaves to find a safe path to freedom, historians fail to see the role quilts played as anything more than a representation of women’s concerns and beliefs.  As early as 1825 the pattern Job’s Tears was known to be renamed Slave Chain to reflect the growing concern of slavery.  This was also the time of the establishment of Female Anti-Slavery Societies. In 1846 The Liberator called attention to the pattern the North Star, indicating that it could represent the star of hope that guided the runaway slaves to northern freedom. 

            Because of their concern for southern slavery, the pattern Underground Railroad  (formerly and presently known as Jacob’s Ladder) was born.  It was named to honor the conductors and passengers of the Underground Railroad.  The light and dark squares leading to the central areas came to represent the path of those upon this railroad as they headed towards the safe houses, the central square in the design.  The pattern was relatively unchanged from its days as Jacob’s Ladder, but its new name reflected the new concern of the time—slavery.

            With the abolitionist cause came the marriage of sewing and women’s protests for the conditions of slavery.  Most often seen in the North, these sentiments weren’t limited to quilts.  Needle cases were a prominent place to display one’s beliefs.  Such inscriptions found between the years of 1830-1850 include:  “Am I not a woman and a sister?”, “Remember them that are in bonds a bound with them.  Heb. 13:3”, and“The mighty are gathered against me:--not for my transgression, nor for my sin.—Holy Writ

According to quilt historian Kimberly Wulfert, “Women inked their sentiments and loyalties onto the fabrics.” 

It was Sarah Grimké who during this time wrote upon her quilt, “May the point of our needles prick the slave owner’s conscience.”

In these days women in the northern states realized their involvement with the southern slavery.  Their textile mills were weaving the King Cotton that necessitated the need for slaves, and each new mill created a need for more slaves.  Ironically, the women used their quilts produced from the fabrics of these mills to speak their minds about slavery.

A Country at War

When the war officially began in 1861, American quilts had already begun their transformation.  While elaborately embroidered quilts were fashioned before the war and sent with departing soldiers in the early days of the war, more practical quilts began to fill the battlefields.  Not only were the patterns and purposes of the quilts changing, but so were the fabrics. 

From pre-war times to early war years, intricately made quilts appeared in wealthier cities along the eastern seaboard.  Secession Quilts became, created in white work with appliqué, were popular during this time.  The federalist eagle often adorned such pieces.  As the war progressed these fine works of art gave way to rough quilts of scraps and homespun that needed to be made quickly and cheaply.

Soldiers needed quilts for bedding, and the faster they could be made the better.  The intricate embroidery and piecework soon gave way to less complex styles as the war demanded more of the women left to sew soldier’s clothing and bedding.  Quilts sewn at the height of the war also became less dense than pre-Civil war era quilts, making them thinner, due to the fabrics and supplies that were limited during the war.  Women who were making quilts for utilitarian purposes made simpler quilts which took less time to create.  For this reason whole cloth and tied quilts became common because they required less time to complete.

Fabrics used for quilts changed during the Civil War as well.  Like the tied quilt, whole cloth quilts came back into fashion because of the simplicity of their creation.  Cotton fabric was easily obtained, and most New England textile mills were creating calicos, making it accessible to all classes of women.  However, location and economic status delineated the fabrics of women’s quilts during these years. 

Imported fabrics were not available to southern women, leaving them with cheaper fabrics such as homespun linsey-woolsey.  Once the beautiful imported fabrics that had been on hand were used, homespun was required.  It was coarser and simpler fabric that took longer to make, thus making the quilting process slower.  Woven checks were popular since printed check patterns needed to be imported.  It was said that during the ending years of the war calico cost as much as $25 a yard.  Resourceful women looked to their homes for materials such as old mattresses, curtains, dresses, and even carpets. 

Color was important as well.  Most of the brilliantly colored quilts were made of imported fabrics which were only available in the north.  At this time many rust or brown colored quilts were made with a darker print in mind for the soldiers to whom the quilts were given.  In the North especially, the patriotic colors were prevalent in quilts, giving them brilliance of color.

            For a quilt made during the Civil War, as with most quilts of any time period, the style of the quilt tells the story of the woman who made it.  If it were a complex quilt of intricate design and detail, it was often done as an aversion to pass the time.  It is believed that Jane A. Blakely Stickle created her “Dear Jane” quilt titled “In War Time” (finished in 1863) for this reason.  This famous quilt includes 169 sampler squares of different patterns with a border made of 52 pieced triangles. Quilts such as this were not made to be given to soldiers; instead, they were made to pass away the days until the war subsided.             

The Power of the Needle           

Women sought to help the war effort in as many ways as they could find despite which half of the country they represented.  While both sides worked for different causes, they both had something in common.  They both worked to help their soldiers—their husbands, their sons, their brothers, and their fathers.

            Women in the northern states played an important role organizing the distribution of materials to the soldiers through the Sanitary Commission.  While the Sanitary Commission was a government association run by Union men, the women formed the Soldiers’ Aide Relief, a women’s auxiliary.  This auxiliary began when the women saw that the Sanitary Commission was receiving donations of clothing, socks, blankets, and other supplies for soldiers but was failing to properly distribute them.  Volunteering to take over the distribution of the donations, the Soldiers’ Aide Relief began and women took a part in the Civil War effort.  They collected supplies to make quilts and other materials needed for the soldiers.  Hosting small bazaars at first, they sold handiworks or personal items to raise money to purchase the materials needed to make quilts and other pieces for the soldiers. 

Women were asked by the Sanitary Commission to sew articles for the soldiers such as clothing and quilts.  The quilts made for soldiers were specified by the military to be approximately 54” x 84”.  Some women created these quilts by cutting two existing bed quilts and sewing them into three soldiers’ quilts.  They used dark, inexpensive fabrics in simple patterns such as a pinwheel.  Often the quilts were sewn quickly or tied and didn’t display the intricacy of former family quilts.  It is said that in the end nearly 250,000 quilts were donated to the Union soldiers.

Anti-slavery fairs were the auxiliary’s way to raise money for their cause, before and during the war.  The first anti-slavery fair that was held in Boston in 1834 raised approximately $600.  In 1845 the Boston fair raised $3,700, and in 1854 it raised nearly $5,000 for supplies.  The beginning trend of items sold at the fairs was to have the items inscribed with anti-slavery sayings such as: “Trample not on the oppressed” and “While our fingers guide the needle our thoughts are intense (tents.)

The fairs also sold homemade foods and products, but quilts were the predominant item for sale.  These fairs grew in number and size as the tensions rose between the states.  The first fair in connection with the Sanitary Commission was held in 1863 with the last being held in 1865.  The Sanitary Commission estimates that the fairs raised approximately $4,500,000 during their operations.

Southern women created women’s auxiliaries to raise money for the Confederate army as well.  During 1861-1862 southern auxiliaries called Ladies’ Defense Association or the Women’s Gunboat Fund surfaced. Intending on raising the $80,000 needed for a gunboat for the Confederate army, southern women began a fundraising effort by creating and selling quilts.  Although the money for a gunboat was never raised, enough money was raised for three boats:  the Charleston, the Fredericksburg, and the Georgia, thus earning these boats the nicknames of “petticoat gunboats.”  Some of the quilts sold by these women’s auxiliaries were made in elaborate broderie perse style of appliqué.  Although the enthusiasm of this project was high at the beginning, it waned somewhat after a year or so when the war limited supplies and naval success seemed bleak.  Fundraising efforts turned focus towards medical supplies and hospitals for soldiers instead.

            The first noted women’s group in the south was in New Orleans in November 1861.  Upset by the northern capture of Port Royal, SC, the women began their effort to raise money for a gunboat by selling homemade and personal items such as family jewelry.  Groups even competed against one another to raise more money for their cause.  The total amount raised was never known since little accounting was done.

            With the North sending no textiles and importation cut off, the South was forced to find materials for clothing and bedding.  Women’s organizations which formed to provide boxes of clothing and bedding for the soldiers included the Ladies Aide, Soldiers Aide Society, and Ladies Clothing Association.         

            This daily lifestyle led to the creation of the pattern known as Sherman’s March.  Sherman’s March honors what those in the south endured as Sherman’s troops traveled over their homeland.  Often their homes were destroyed and their supplies were raided.  Most of these homes were inhabited by women and children who were left behind when the men went off to war.  Today this pattern is often called Churn Dash.

Quilts and the Economy

Some women sold their quilts for means of support especially after the war ended and economic despair pervaded the South.  Often the quilts were used in bartering for household supplies.  The famed Bible Quilt was eventually sold for only $5 when the family grew desperate. 

            Elizabeth Keckley used her sewing skills to earn herself freedom from slavery in 1855.  She was born to a seamstress mother on a plantation and soon learned her valued skill well.  A modiste, one who not only sews but designs clothes as well, she fell in favor with many while she worked as times grew tough to support her master and seventeen others on her plantation.  Many of these clients who were so fond of Keckley were women of one of St. Louis’ women’s society who loaned her $1200 to buy both her and her son’s freedom.  Her sewing skills were then used to create quilts which were sold to repay those loans.  Eventually, Elizabeth Keckley became the personal seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln.


Many original Civil War era quilts no longer exist.  Soldiers were buried with their quilts, and many were used to the point of destruction.  They served as utilitarian items that were used and reused, sewn and cut to form new quilts, until there was nothing left.  Those that survive tend to be from women who had the ability to preserve and keep their quilts rather than put them to hard use.  In the Reconstruction Era quilts became a type of “salvage art” due to the weak economy and limited supplies, yet another way that the quilts serve historians well.  Novels in their own right, the quilts tell the story of both the North and the South, the wealthy and the impoverished, through their fabrics, styles, and purposes.  They are as much as part of the Civil War as the musket for few soldiers would like to have gone to war without either one.


A version of this article originally appeared in Piecework Sep-Oct 2007:  16-19.


© Kelly Ann Butterbaugh