The efforts of women were crucial for survival during the Civil War
PENNSDALE – The efforts of women were seemingly endless during the Civil War. From making mittens and quilts, to applying home made medications, and dispersing hospital clothing, these women were constantly knitting and sewing for the soldiers. With an array of patriotic replications of hand made quilts, Ann Diseroad gave a descriptive background to the Susquehanna Valley Quilt Guild (SVQG) at the Pennsdale United Methodist Church on April 25 about the roles of women during these hard times.
Diseroad who lives in Bloomsburg is a retired librarian, local historian, and serves on the board of the Columbia County Historical and Genealogical Society. She works with the well known Barton House at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds where she enjoys providing a “living history experience for visitors.”
“The women in the Civil War did exceptional things,” she said. They were spies, nurses, and some even dressed up like men to be a soldier. “Unrecognized are their tremendous contributions,” said Diseroad. She discovered their non-traditional roles through her own ancestors. “Eight of them were Yankees and fought at Fort Sumter.” Meanwhile local abolitionists adopted resolutions and organized reserves in Pennsylvania. “The ladies were not far behind,” Diseroad added.
From her research, Diseroad discovered that the women made silk quilts and sold them for $50 each. “Every man received a pin and needle cushion,” she explained. “They gathered for a presentation for the flags and pin cushions on Market Square in Bloomsburg.” The ladies were lauded in newspaper reports, but seldom were able to make the presentations themselves. “Usually the men did that.” The pocket pin cushions became sentimental gifts for the soldiers. The newspapers across the nation continued to follow the women, and numerous newspapers even published a pattern to make socks.
Blankets and flannel uniform shirts were also made by the women and used at the encampments. According to Diseroad they would set up shop at the YMCA’s. They brought in their sewing machines (the first one was marketed in 1851 for home use). However, the women in the South stopped using them. “They were destroyed by the North because they were considered part of military support. The military did not want civilians (females) interfering with their business.” They would make “shooters mittens”. Women from both sides, North and South, were working on the same knitting patterns. They also constructed undershirts, blankets and pillows. A favorite was a comfort bag where the soldier kept his pipe, tobacco and some small tools.
On April 26, 1861, 4,000 women met at Union Station in New York City and formed the Central Association of Relief which became the backbone of the United States Sanitary Commission to provide food, clothing and medical supplies where they were needed. It was formed by a woman, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female to earn a medical degree in the United States. “This helped to reduce the number of soldiers killed in battle from disease.” Diseroad reported that in 1864 the need changed due to decreased diseases in war. The hand made sheets, blankets and quilts were a welcoming need for wounded soldiers in hospitals. “The government blankets were poorly made and there was a shortage. 118 blankets were donated by Lewisburg women,” Diseroad said. She added that 250,000 quilts were sent to the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, and they were used hard. “Few have survived. Some were used to bury the soldiers. Coffins were in short supply.” Some of the dead were rolled in the blankets and burned in boxes.
Over the next fifty years following the Civil War, sewing machines did not change much. Charity quilts are still made today. “Quilts with a flag theme are extremely popular, and was one of the first patterns printed in color,” she said. Each block was quilted individually, then slip stitched together. “This allowed busy women to work independently.”
The Florence Machine Company formed in the 1860s inspired the “Battle Cry of Freedom, Rally Round the Flag Boys” and the all-American Flag quilt was born. Some quilts were made from thin woven carpet, and newspapers would publish items that the ladies needed to make the quilts. It is recorded that 4,330 quilts were made throughout the Civil War.