BELFAST — On March 11, a package arrived at the Belfast Historical Society and Museum at 10 Market St. Megan Pinette, society president and museum curator, was at home when George Squibb, the museum archivist, called and said, ‘You need to come down here.’”
As Pinette and Squibb carefully opened the package and spread out its contents, “we started getting goose bumps, and the hairs stood up on the backs of our heads,” Pinette said. Careful inspection confirmed that the package contained a historical bombshell: a Civil War soldiers quilt sewn by 22 Belfast women in early summer 1864 and sent to a Washington, D.C., military hospital.
Then the quilt vanished for 147 years. Yet even before it reappeared in Montana earlier this year, Pinette knew all about the quilt, thanks to a 31-year-old Belfast woman who helped sew it and then wrote about the experience 53 years later.
The eldest child and only daughter of Phineas and Susannah Quimby, Augusta Quimby Frederick belonged to the Ladies’ Volunteer Aid Society, an organization that assisted Belfast soldiers and their families during the Civil War. Society members sewed clothing and other items, including 39 quilts sent to the 4th Maine Infantry in December 1861.
In June 1864, the Ladies’ Volunteer Aid Society became the U.S.G. Society; Pinette believes the letters stand for “Ulysses Simpson Grant,” then the Union’s most popular general. That month, society members undertook a particular project that resonates through history.
“As a diversion from real work it was proposed to make a Flag Bed Quilt for a hospital,” Augusta Quimby Frederick wrote in “Recollections of the Civil War” in 1917. “A committee was chosen to purchase the materials, and at a meeting at the Unitarian Parsonage the quilt was designed, cut and prepared for willing hands to finish.”
Actual quilt creation began June 17, 1864. The U.S.G. Society envisioned the project as “an inspirational quilt” versus a smaller, narrower one that might cover a patient’s cot, Pinette said. Measuring 62½ inches by 92½ inches, the quilt incorporated a 39½-by-69-inch flag, four corner flag blocks, and three rows of alternating red, white and blue squares. The top material is cotton; the quilt has a cotton-batting lining and calico backing.
The seamstresses finished the quilt in Nehemiah Abbott’s house at Congress and Main streets in Belfast on July 7, 1864. “To celebrate they had a supper and a dance [that day] until the wee hours of the morning, and then they sent off the quilt,” Pinette said.
“A picnic supper was served, to which the young men were invited,” Frederick wrote in 1917. “The quilt was finished during the afternoon, and was displayed in the dining room and was much admired. The following week it was sent to Washington by express, accompanied by a letter from our president, Miss Arbella Johnson.”
The quilt and letter (sent separately) went to Armory Square Hospital, Ward 26, in Washington, D.C. The letter arrived first; the quilt arrived at the hospital on Aug. 12, 1864, as indicated in an acknowledgement letter sent to the U.S.G. Society by a “Miss McClellan,” Frederick wrote. The letter revealed that the quilt was shown to soldier patients.
Based on the quilt’s condition, Pinette believes the quilt was hung for patients to see from their cots. “There were a number of inspirational quilts” similarly displayed in military hospitals, she said.
The quilt evidently remained in the hospital until April or May 1865, perhaps a bit later. “It disappears until it shows up in Montana, where it was stored in a closet for 30 years,” Pinette said. The quilt “shows signs of being saved from a burn barrel. Did that happen because it’s a flag quilt? We don’t know.”
Pinette had read Frederick’s account about the quilt’s creation. Then one day “in February , I pick up the phone,” and a woman calling from Montana “tells me her mother has just died, and they’re cleaning out her house.” Found tightly rolled in a closet was a flag quilt; finding the phrase “Belfast, Maine, June 17, 1864” printed on a white stripe, the woman contacted the Belfast Historical Society.
After speaking with Pinette, the woman offered to ship the flag quilt to Belfast. “It shipped to Washington by express, and it came home by priority mail,” Pinette recalled.
The quilt’s miraculous survival and return make a wonderful story that could be never-ending. Everyone who has viewed the quilt since March realizes that it still “speaks” across 15 decades. “It keeps telling you a different story every time you talk to it,” Pinette said.
In her 1917 account, Frederick wrote that “the names of all the members (quilters) were written on the white stripes, appropriate mottoes were in every star and where some pun or play upon the Union officers’ names could be made, it was quickly incorporated.”
Names, puns and patriotic phrases appear on the white stripes, white blocks and around the four corner flags. Written in a neat hand by Frederick’s sister-in-law Annie Haraden Quimby, the words are faint, the ink partially faded, but the patriotic passion and humor expressed by the Belfast women leap from the quilt:
• A tribute to a Maine officer: “Good Maine ham, well-cured and smoked in many battles. Gen. [Hiram] Burnham.”
• A pun: “If the rebs won’t pay, we’ll ‘charge ’em.’”
• A patriotic phrase that played on a popular Southern song: “Hurrah! Hurrah! For Northern rights hurrah! Hurrah for the dear old flag, With every stripe and star!”
Since March, Pinette and museum volunteers have documented carefully every phrase written on the quilt. Research already has led to learning more about the quilters, with Frederick’s extensively archived local histories providing vital information.
“The lives of these women, that’s what we’re finding so very interesting,” Pinette said.
Judy Roche, a quilt historian from Stockton Springs, examined the Civil War soldiers’ quilt soon after its arrival. “She got all excited in her very quiet way” and suggested displaying the quilt on Flag Day, which the Belfast Historical Society did, Pinette said.
Speaking on June 14 in a packed Abbott Room at the Belfast Free Library, quilt historian Pam Weeks discussed quilts made during the Civil War. Telling the audience that “you have a national treasure” in the Belfast Civil War soldiers quilt, Weeks indicated that it is one of 14 known to exist. Weeks is the New England Quilt Museum curator.
“It’s very interesting to have an object that is considered a treasure,” Pinette said. “It’s already in demand a little bit, but we’re not sure how we will display it. It will be shown only for special exhibits.”
The quilt exhibits some deterioration, primarily tears in the fabric. The Belfast Historical Society hopes to have the quilt examined by conservators to determine the appropriate restoration steps.
For more information about the Civil War soldiers’ quilt, visit http://www.belfastmuseum.org and click on “News.”