Civil War Era,  Women's History

A Quilt for the Cause

In 1861, Frederick Law Olmsted described the soldiers returning from battle as “pale, grimy, with bloodshot eyes, unshaven, unkempt, sullen, fierce, feverish, weak and ravenous,” and, all in all, utterly demoralized. In the eyes of Olmsted and the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), the sickness of body and soul were closely intertwined. Though conditions were deplorable (“tainted water supplies, rotting and/or nutritionally deficient food, unsanitary hospitals, filthy campsites, lack of clothing, and so on”), soldiers most often suffered from prevalent homesickness.

Recognizing the need for supplies and desiring to support their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers, women flooded the frontlines with the comforts of home. One of the USSC’s purposes was to monitor and regulate the influx of these charitable gifts flowing to the battlefields from the homefront. By establishing guidelines for bedding, the USSC could better ensure that all fabric items met their strict hospital sanitation policies.

In 1863, one woman, moved by the unsatisfactory conditions of the war and longing to play a part in the cause, rallied her Augusta, Maine, Sunday School class to construct a USSC quilt designed to comfort wounded soldiers. Susannah Pullen and fourteen other young women completed the quilt and penned on its fifteen star-patterned blocks more than 150 inscriptions, including Bible verses, uplifting stories, health remedies, jokes, riddles, and patriotic messages. The quilt was sent to hospitals in Washington, D.C., eventually being returned to Pullen at the conclusion of the war. Though the inscriptions have long faded, the quilt lives on as a memorial to those who bravely served the cause both on the frontlines and at home.

[From the exhibit Covering America: The Textile Heritage of 19th-Century Quilts]

  •  Long, Lisa A. “Sanitized Bodies: The United States Sanitary Commission and Soul Sickness.” In Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War, 84-112. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • NMAH. “1863 Susannah Pullen’s Civil War Quilt.” National Quilt Collection. Accessed October 21, 2022.

* Featured image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History