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From the water to the battlefield, an appreciation for Civil War quilts

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

The quilting form will be discussed and displayed Sunday at the Captain Avery Museum in Shady Side, as Mavis Slawson, a textile historian and docent at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, in Frederick, gives a presentation Sept. 8 on "Civil War Soldiers and Their Quilts."

Slawson said she hoped to convey that quilts provided more than just physical comfort to soldiers in the Civil War — they were also 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," said Slawson, a Columbia resident 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 said.

"The 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 said.

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

Jeff Holland, executive director of the Captain Avery Museum, said the Civil War quilt presentation fits in nicely with his museum's mission, which is to preserve the heritage and history of the Shady Side community and those who have lived and worked there over the years, on both the land and the water.

The museum's holdings include an extensive collection of oral histories.

"Some the stories told in those histories are about social justice," Holland said. "For instance, many of the watermen who lived and worked here on the Shady Side peninsula were African-American. In what was otherwise a totally segregated society, they were working side by side with white watermen, more or less in equality.

"We actually have a quilt from the family of one of these African-American watermen," he said.

Holland said Slawson's presentation is also a good fit because of the widespread popularity of quilting. "Quilters are very talented people, very devoted people and they are all over the place," he said. "Several members of our board are active quilters."

Slawson has studied both 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 said with a laugh.

When she speaks at the Captain Avery Museum, she will bring along several of the Civil War-era replica quilts she has made over the years.

"I'll be bringing [a replica of a] U.S. Sanitary Commission quilt that I made that a soldier might have used on his cot, or on his bed if he was recovering in a general hospital," Slawson said. "I'll also have another quilt I made that's a replica of a style that originated in New England, especially in Maine and Massachusetts, called the potholder quilt."

Slawson said during the Civil War, different regions of the Union — including Baltimore and various 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 said. "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.

"Baltimore was also very special insofar as it was known for its album quilts, which were very, very expensive," she added. "They have beautiful handwork and they were made with the best fabrics from England and France. They are just gorgeous, and it took quite a bit of time to make them.

"Most of all, the Civil War quilts contained messages of comfort and love and support for the troops," she said. "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."

Mavis Slawson will give her presentation, "Civil War Soldiers and their Quilts" at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, at the Captain Avery Museum, 1418 E West Shady Side Road, Shady Side. Information: 410-867-4486 or Admission to the talk is free, though a $10 donation per person is requested.

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