Quilting in History: Plundered During Sherman’s Fiery March to the Sea?

Here at 24 Blocks, we’re committed to bringing you interesting stories in the rich history of quilting. Today’s story in this series highlights a chintz friendship quilt housed at the Kansas Historical Foundation.

Was this quilt stolen from a burned out home during Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea?

Pre-Civil War chintz friendship quilt. Click to enlarge.

Pre-Civil War chintz friendship quilt. Click to enlarge.

This beautiful quilt dates from 1845-1865, and is a chintz friendship quilt in the Broderie Perse style. Broderie Perse is French for Persian Embroidery, and is a style of applique embroidery which uses printed elements to create a scene on the background fabric. It was most popular in Europe in the 17th century, and probably travelled from India originally. It was most often executed with chintz fabrics, as seen here. The typical intention was to create a scene from the motifs, by the decoration could also be random. Quilts like these were typically used for special occasions, such as on a guest bed.

Chintz has a very interesting history itself, as it was originally woodblock printed or stained in India, beginning in 1600 and lasting through about 1800. The fabrics were exported to the rest of the world and were extremely rare and expensive. They became very popular in Europe in the late 17th century, and French and English mills could not make them to keep up with demand or compete. Chintz was therefore banned, of course making it all the more desirous. The courtiers of Versailles continued to wear it, for example.

Back to the quilt at hand, this one has blocks appliqued with chintz cut-outs of floral sprays, wreaths, garlands and a few animals. Each individual block is inked with a signature, most of which linking them to residents of James Island, South Carolina (per the 1860 census).

Reverend George T. Holyoke found this quilt in a Union army camp during the Civil War when he was a private in the 45th Illinois infantry.

According to his wife, Holyoke spied the quilt in another soldier’s billet, or private sleeping quarters. She suggested that he took it in order to save the beautiful object from ruin in the filthy camp.

Holyoke returned from the war and moved to Kansas, becoming a minister. His wife donated the quilt to the Kansas Historical Society upon his death in 1895, wanting first to discover its original owners. Mrs. Holyoke would never know the answer, but an independent researcher in the late 20th century delved into census records and found that the names on the quilt blocks tied it to a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina, James Island. This once-prosperous community was devastated by the Civil War, being unluckily situated on the warpath of Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea.

George Holyoke was a member of the 45th Illinois, among of the thousands of soldiers who plundered and destroyed everything in their path in the March to the Sea. They swept through the tiny, isolated James Island. It is therefore quite likely that Holyoke took the quilt as a spoil of war during a raid. How else would the quilt have wound up in the hands of the Union Army, coming from a small, isolated town of staunch Confederates? It does not necessarily mean that Holyoke plundered the quilt himself, but it is more than probable that either he or his fellow Union soldiers did so. Perhaps he kept this quiet from his wife, to spare her and himself from recounting the gruesome and unsavory affair. Perhaps she knew full well and kept it quiet to save his reputation.

As for the names on the quilt, Edward H. Mellichamp and William S. Mellichamp, to name two, these island residents were discovered to have perished during the war, serving for the Confederate Army.

Thank you to researchers and historians at the Kansas Historical Foundation for this fascinating story.

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