Women of the Union (North) and Confederate (South) sides of the American Civil War (1861-1865), forbidden by cultural norms and law from joining the armies, “fought” the war and healed its wounds primarily from the home front. Unlike today when the U.S. government equips its troops, during the Civil War families and communities provided many of soldiers’ necessities. Mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters raided their cupboards for bedding, including handmade quilts and woven coverlets, which kept their men warm and reminded them of home.
Almost immediately after the war began in April 1861, on both homefronts women invested their unpaid labor in organizing larger networks to gather and distribute supplies to their armies. Quilts were among the many items supplied, which also included linens, lint and bandages, shirts, socks, undergarments, and nutritious foods. In the North, the U.S. Sanitary Commission and U.S. Christian Commission collected supplies from local Ladies Aid societies across the region and distributed them through their national network. Surviving quilts made for Union Soldiers are often Album style with each block contributed by a different woman in the group. Even with these national efforts, there were always more needs than could be met.
In the South, where the population was smaller and more dispersed, and loyalties were more strongly attached to individual states than the Confederate government, women’s aid networks were small. The war, much of it fought close to home, devastated the Confederate economy, and Union blockades of southern ports severely restricted arrival of all goods. Critical shortages on the homefront limited women’s ability to support the war with material goods.
In spite of the magnitude of soldiers’ needs, surviving quilts demonstrate that patriotic spirits persevered in the South and North. Women on both sides used their needles as “weapons” in fundraising for relief and defense. Women in Alabama made quilts they auctioned to raise funds for gunships to protect their ports. Union women returned to “fancy” sewing to make fine quilts and other textiles they raffled at the Sanitary Fairs in Chicago, New York, St Louis, and other cities.
Quiltmakers often incorporated patriotic inscriptions and symbols--particularly the flag to which the maker was loyal. North or South, fancy or plain, the quilts were overwhelmingly made of cotton cloth and filled with cotton, the fiber so entwined with the causes of the war.