Columbia woman's study of fabric weaves a history of the Civil War

Mavis Slawson
Mavis Slawson (Photo courtesy National Museum of Civil War Medicine)

The Civil War experience has been preserved over the past 150 years through a variety of media: books, newspaper accounts, films, drawings, paintings, diaries ... and fabrics.

Columbia resident Mavis Slawson has made the latter her specialty as a textile historian and docent at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick.


She often gives presentations about the role of textiles in the Civil War, examining their role not only as practical materials but also in conveying and preserving culture across the battlefield.

She says soldiers' quilts, for instance, provided more than physical comfort — they were a source of emotional and spiritual solace for men who were a long way from home and in harm's way.


"Many of these quilts had special meaning to the soldiers in the field or in the hospitals," says Slawson, who is not only well-versed in the history of Civil War quilts but is an accomplished quilter herself.

"It was important for them to have something personal like this from their wives or mothers or children," she says.

Slawson travels around the region speaking about the Civil War — especially during this year marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. On Sept. 28-29, she'll be part of a program, "Coats & Quilts, Soldiers & Civilians: The Fabrics of Life at Antietam," held at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at Antietam National Battlefield.

Slawson is slated to talk about the history of the soldier's blanket — an important possession for both Union and Confederate personnel — and also about the Union army sack coat, a jacket worn by thousands of soldiers during the Civil War and at the Battle of Antietam.

The weekend, hosted by the National Park Service, will also look at the history and cultural significance of quilts and quilting.

Slawson has studied the history and the historic techniques of quilt-making at the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg, Va. "That's where I became a convert," she says with a laugh.

"Quilts brought back memories and gave the men the will to stick it out, and to either win a battle or, if they were sick or injured, to get better." The quilts held such inspirational power that soldiers in hospitals would often hang them up as wall art, she says.

"Some of the quilts had puns on them, or riddles or jokes," Slawson says. "Some had biblical verses, and sometimes they had songs, like the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' "

Slawson says during the Civil War, different regions of the Union — including Baltimore and New England states — developed their own styles and techniques of quilting. While some were made by family members, usually a mother, daughter or sister who had a loved one away at war, others were a community effort.

"Often, one quilter would make one or two blocks and sign them, then others would do the same, and they would sew them all together," Slawson says. "Sometimes if a soldier was in the hospital, family members might come down and visit him in Washington or Baltimore or Pittsburgh and bring him a quilt.

"Most of all, the Civil War quilts contained messages of comfort and love and support for the troops," she says. "The soldiers brought many of them home with them after the war, and they have been handed down from generation to generation, which is very important."

On Sept. 28 and 29, the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at Antietam National Battlefield will host "Coats & Quilts, Soldiers & Civilians: The Fabrics of Life at Antietam," with interpretation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and special presentations at noon and 2 p.m. each day. The event is free, but there is a park entrance fee. Parking is at the Antietam National Battlefield, 5831 Dunker Church Road, Sharpsburg. For details, call 301-416-2395, email pryprograms@civilwarmed.org or go to http://www.civilwarmed.org.

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