Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Civil War Stitches

A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Neither the Union nor the Confederate governments were prepared to field armies when the Civil War first began. The most obvious need was for uniforms for the tens of thousands of volunteers. President Lincoln's first call was for 75,000 volunteers. An estimated 4.5 yards of fabric were needed per uniform. that's 337,500 yards (or 191.76 miles) of fabric just for trousers and jackets. Who made those uniforms? Well, at the outset of the war, governments contracted with factories, but they couldn't work fast enough. Women stepped up, and they did made a lot more than just uniforms.

Women made the regimental flags carried into battle. The photo below
shows a detail of one such flag presented by the ladies of St. Louis to a regiment serving with the Missouri Guard. Those bears are created with silk thread, one stitch at a time. The flag flew outside the regimental commander's tent. Other regimental flags made by women were carried into battle. 

Once war broke out, sewing circles that already existed to benefit the destitute immediately added filling soldiers' needs to their cause, providing shirts and socks, blankets and quilts, for the boys and men volunteering from their town or region.

"My dear friend, you are not my husband nor son; but you are the husband or son of some woman who undoubtedly loves you as I love mine. I have made these garments for you with a heart that aches for your sufferings ..." [note included in a Sanitary Commission shipment] 

As the war went on and hospitals began to fill with the wounded, women produced hospital shirts and bandages. One impressive statistic: by war's end, the Northwestern Sanitary Commission headquartered in Chicago had supplied 267,936 pounds of bandages, compresses, and lint (lint was used for packing wounds and created by unraveling linen towels or "scraping" other household textiles to break down the fibers). 

"My dear boy, I have knit these socks expressly for you. How do you like them? ... Write and tell me all about yourself, and how you get on in the hospitals ..." [note included in a Sanitary Commission shipment]

Women knitted socks and mittens, the latter created from a pattern developed to incorporate a trigger finger. The Western Sanitary Commission headquartered in St. Louis had, by war's end, provided 78,656 pairs of socks.

In the early stages of the war, women collected quilts and blankets. When the supply ran out, they began to make cot-sized quilts and tied comforters (15,131 comforts from the Northwestern Sanitary Commission and 40,574 blankets and comforts from the Western Sanitary Commission), along with 100,000 pillow cases. 

The numbers are a bit staggering, aren't they? In an era when we buy the textiles we need for our families, it's difficult to imagine having to make literally everything a soldier might need in the field. 

"She'd sat up half the night making Seamus his own mending kit--a replica of the one a teary-eyed Bridget Feeny had presented to Jack yesterday afternoon. The soldiers called them housewives, Bridget said. Making one for Seamus had given Maggie something productive to do last night, when sleep simply would not come." From Daughter of the Regiment

Housewife (soldier's mending kit)
Soldiers had to do their own mending in camp, and so women made mending kits referred to as "housewives." Many different examples survive in museum collections. I photographed the one at left when I visited a museum exhibit about Illinois women's efforts during the war.

"Feed the Hungry" quilt
Civil War women were very well aware of the importance of what they were doing. Some referred to their sewing groups as "needle regiments." With the conclusion of the war, they didn't stop stitching for the benefit of soldiers and their families. Raffle quilts raised funds to benefit destitute families of wounded warriors. The one at left was created and raffled by a Methodist Episcopal ladies group in Lexington, Missouri. Across the surface of the quilt, the words "feed the hungry" reminded survivors that the war might be over, but the need for women's stitches had not ended. 

The tradition of sewing for soldiers continues today. One example is Quilts of Valor, created to "cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor." 

Have you ever sent a care package to a modern-day warrior? Are you part of a contemporary "needle regiment" making Quilts of Valor? God bless you.


Stephanie learned about "Civil War stitches" while researching her book Daughter of the Regiment. This fall, you'll be able to read about Civil War stitchers in her novella appearing in A Basket Brigade Christmas, a Civil War collection written with Nancy Moser and Judith Miller. Stay tuned!


An inspiring story of discovering courage and friendship through tremendous adversity. Drawing on the actual histories of women who found ways to work on the battlefront during the Civil War, this outstanding historical will attract fans of Janette Oke, Lisa Wingate, and Tamera Alexander. *Starred review* Library Journal

Based on true events, this story will capture the hearts of historical fiction fans. Publishers Weekly


  1. It I'd amazing to think if how hands on people were back then with the basics of life.

    1. I agree, Rebecca. Just one bear on that regimental flag would take so many hours ...

  2. I loved this blog post! Thank you!

  3. Thanks for sharing with us about the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Civil War women. It's hard to imagine them finding time to sew so many items when they had such a hard daily life. My #3 son, who has been deployed three times with the National Guard--2 to Iraq & once to Egypt--has a lovely quilt that someone made for him. The efforts of those dedicated women are such a blessing to our military people.

  4. I shared in sending Christmas supplies to soldiers in Iraq. I recruited my job peers to collect things with me and it became our Chistmas Project. Very satisfying. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com