Handmade quilts tell a story about their maker and the time in which they lived, and the quilts on display as part of the Civil War exhibit are no exception. The quilts date from several years before and after the war itself. Each one provides a window into one quilter's perspective and experience. Visitors to the museum will feel transported to a different time and place, yet still have a sense of familiarity; Civil War quilts are firmly within the American quilting tradition.
"It is our pleasure to share these remarkably preserved pieces of history. At a time when the nation was wracked by turmoil, the craft of quilting may have provided a simple comfort," explained Judy Schwender, National Quilt Museum Curator/Registrar. "These quilts showcase the variety of intricate designs and fabric choices available to quilters during the Civil War era."
The American Civil War was a time of epic struggle; the seeds of conflict were sewn in the first years of the nation's existence. Arguments about state versus federal power and the place of human slavery in a civilized society had reached a critical mass by the 1850s.
Fort Sumter in South Carolina was the setting for the opening volleys of the war on April 12, 1861. Four years later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The Reconstruction Period lasted for another 12 years after the last guns fell silent.
The human toll on both sides of the conflict was staggering. Combined casualties totaled over 600,000, or more than 2% of the population. Professor J. David Hacker of Binghamton University believes these figures may be an underestimate; he places the death toll closer to 750,000.
In spite of the national catastrophe pitting North against South and brother against brother, the routines of daily life continued—including the making of quilts. The juxtaposition is poetic, and the museum hopes that this exhibit puts a human, domestic face on a period of history that is most typically associated with death and dying.
Among the unique and evocative quilts on display is a presentation album quilt made for the Reverend D. C. McCoy. As part of the 137th Illinois Infantry Volunteers out of Quincy, Illinois, McCoy was mustered on June 5, 1864. The regiment served for 100 days.
The presentation album quilt is a remarkable piece of handcraft and patriotism. In the lower right hand corner, for instance, is an applique of the original American flag. The quilt also bears a date patch: "United States of America, August 20th AD 1869."
"The National Quilt Museum invites the public to join us in celebration of this great country. The Civil War period quilts symbolize the titanic struggles that this nation has undergone as her people have fought to extend freedom to all citizens," added Schwender. "Walking among these quilts, visitors are really walking through history—we hope that the journey is a memorable one."
Quilts in the Civil War exhibit are on loan from the Arlan and Pat Christ Collection. Residents of Berks County, Pennsylvania, the Christs are steadfast protectors of American quilting traditions, helping to preserve an important aspect of daily life through outreach and education.
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