Through the predawn of April 12, 1861, the first Confederate shell arched through the sky and exploded behind the walls of Fort Sumter. It touched off one of the deadliest wars in America’s history.
By April 20, 1861 President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 men to join the militia. And within five days of the call going out, the women on the home front got involved.
All over the country, Union and Confederate women, composed of the mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts of our brave soldiers, rallied to the war effort. Patriotic passion abounded on both sides, certain the war would be short and decisive.
The U.S. Sanitary Commission was funded and supplied by the efforts of Northern women volunteers with the object of "doing what the government could not". They rolled bandages, sewed quilts, clothing, purchased medicines, and held fund raisers called "Sanitary Fairs".
It is rare to find a quilt that survived such hard use but diaries, letters and family lore tell about the quilts. Usually they were made using simple block patterns such as the 9-patch or snowball. The fabric was most likely a cheap basic calico or checked dark print. The dirt showed less if dark colors were used.
To prevent theft, all quilts distributed by the Sanitary Commission were stamped with the U.S.S.C. oval logo.
Northern women gave quilts to Northern soldiers from the beginning of the Civil War until the end. They made special quilts as well as utility quilts. Some quilts were inscribed in ink with the names and dates of those who's hands had sewn them. There was a story about a soldier that had been injured, was unresponsive and near death. They changed his bed and covered him with a quilt . He began reading the signatures on the quilt and found his wife's name. He immediately began improving and survived.
In 1863 the U.S. Sanitary Commission requested cot size quilts (approximately 48 x 84 inches) that the soldiers could also use as bedrolls and this amazing group of volunteer women made an estimated 150,000 - 250,000 sanitary commission quilts in addition to providing an abundance of other relief services.
Many Southern women tended to stitch with their family rather than forming sewing circles or societies. Some may have had little experience in sewing for themselves due to having people in the household who might have done that particular work for them. However, Southern Relief Societies were formed as the war dragged on but none were coordinated like those in the North.
The biggest challenge facing the women of the south was fabric shortage. Southern women cut up heirloom quilts and used carpet, drapes and linings from their dresses to make blankets and quilts for their soldiers. Later during the war, southern women spun cotton and made homespun fabric to be utilized for quilts and clothing. In some of their diaries they write about the roughness of the homespun fibers and of making clothing from bed ticking and basically anything else they could salvage. Due to the high cost of fabric and severe fabric shortages, they often resorted to using newspaper as quilt batting.
As you can imagine, not many of these Civil War quilts made for soldiers survive today. Many were completely worn out after the war and did not seem worth saving as well as many soldiers were buried in their quilts.
Quilts in the Civil War era seem even more precious under the dire circumstances and reasons for their creation.