Friday, December 13, 2013

Real Civil War Women

Over the last 150 years, there have been at least 60,000 books written about the American Civil War.  Some of them are very good, some are terrible, most are somewhere in between.  This is one of the good ones.
Its title is Wisconsin Women in the War between the States, and it was first published in 1911.  A facsimile edition was issued this year by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.  The author was Ethel Alice Hurn, a female graduate student at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) at the time.  It is well organized, well written, and relies for the most part on primary sources, including interviews with surviving women who participated in the war effort.
Southern women tend to get all the glory, and it's really no wonder.  Their states and even their homes were invaded and their lives were changed dramatically.  Even during the war itself, Northern women were often criticized in the press for not being as patriotic as their sisters in the South.  Their efforts have been consistently under reported and underrated. 
Ms. Hurn sets the record straight, at least for Wisconsin women, who contributed by sending supplies, caring for wounded soldiers in hospitals North and South, raising funds to help soldiers' families, and even setting up the Milwaukee Soldiers Home after the war.
The lady on the cover is Jane (or Janet) Jennings, from Green County, who served as a nurse.

Naturally, I was most interested in the quilts sent by the ladies for the soldiers.  In October 1861, the women of Berlin sent 32 quilts and blankets to a cavalry regiment stationed at Ripon.  And the Milwaukee Telegraph reported in 1884 on a quilt found in Bentonville, Georgia that had been sent from the women of Green Bay to the army in 1864.  Most of the quilt was worn out, but there were still signatures and verses visible.  Here's one verse:

'Twas made for brave boys, who went from the West;
And swiftly the fair fingers flew,
While each stitch, as it went to its place in the quilt,
Was a smothered "God bless you, boys," too.

(By the way, Wisconsin was considered part of the West in those days.)  All of us who have made quilts for soldiers can relate to this message.  I wish there was a picture!

To my mind, the best stories from history are the true ones, because they show how real people lived.  I checked this book out of the Germantown library.  If you want to read it, just ask at your library, or you can order it from the Wisconsin Historical Society. 

And since I dragged these old quilts out as backgrounds for the book, I thought you might like to see them in their entirety.
This old girl is from New Hampshire, and came to me from Ebay.  I love all the wonderful print fabrics.

The edge is pretty cool, too--side triangles of different scraps fill in between the blocks.  There are two alternating pieced blocks in the quilt--nine patch and a square in a square variation.  About that binding--it's a repair, probably done during the 1970s.  The fabric doesn't go AT ALL.  Every now and then I think about replacing it.  (Then I lie down, and the feeling goes away.)

The second quilt combines pink, yellow, red, and green in the pieced blocks.  Who would do that today?  I bought this one in an antique store in Indiana.  The indigo flying geese border is what caught my attention first.  It's hard to tell from this picture, but the triangles are a blue/white print.

The red fabric has deteriorated badly, but the rest of the fabrics have held up pretty well.

The main thing that is holding this quilt together is the wonderful quilting--thousands and thousands of tiny hand stitches.  I just could not leave it there, it had to come home with me.

Judging from the fabrics, both of these quilts were probably made before the Civil War, and may have been in use then in their homes in the North.  Neither was kept aside for best, as you can tell from the wear.  Touching them touches the history of our country, and especially the history of real women.


  1. Lovely quilts, great fabrics. Will put the book on my wish list. Thank you for the review.

  2. You made an amazing review of the book. I've never read the book, but I'm sure I'm going to hunt that down and read it once I got the time. I admire women's roles in every modern war, although I'm mostly familiar with that of the Great World Wars. That's why I'd like to expand my knowledge of the women who served with the men in the war between the States, albeit differently but no less important. Anyway, the quilts inspired by the book look exquisitely made. You've got wonderful skills and I hope you keep your creativity blossoming!

    Christian Pearson @ League of Women Voters


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