Jump to Navigation

Civil War Quilt

Holyoke quilt

Thousands of buildings were looted of their contents during the Civil War. This quilt from a ransacked home has only recently been reunited with its history.

George Holyoke was in a Union army camp somewhere in the South when he spied this quilt in another soldier's billet. Holyoke was a seasoned fighter, having survived many battles since leaving his farm to join the 45th Illinois Infantry. No doubt he'd seen things he wished to forget. Finding an elegant bedcover in a dirty camp bothered Holyoke, so he bought the quilt and sent it home to his wife in Illinois.

Holyoke served out the war and returned home to Illinois where he became a Congregational minister. Eventually he moved to Kansas with his wife. The couple carried the quilt with them, first to Axtell, then to Topeka. George passed away in 1895, and nearly 30 years later his widow donated the quilt to the Kansas Historical Society. She asked staff to attempt to find its original owners. That task would be impossible for most quilts, but this particular example was different because it bore many clues—more than 50 names handwritten on the blocks.

Early attempts to locate the quilt's owners failed. The most common surnames written on the blocks are Mellichamp and Rivers. Mrs. Holyoke believed her husband had acquired the bedcover in either Louisiana or Mississippi, both places where the 45th Illinois served, but none of the contacts in these states had ever heard of those families. The quilt's history remained a closed book until the late 20th century, when an independent researcher delved into census records for 1860 and solved the mystery.

Close-up of quilt block

James Island

Instead of origins in Louisiana or Mississippi, the quilt's story centered on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. About nine miles long and four miles wide, James Island supported a thriving agricultural community in the antebellum years. The Mellichamps, Cromwells, Hinsons, Rivers, and other families whose names are recorded on the quilt were all residents of the island or neighboring mainland communities. They had a front row seat to the bombardment that began the Civil War, because Fort Sumter was just off James Island's northeastern tip. Their homes did not fare well during the conflict because the island suffered skirmishes, an evacuation, martial law, and occupation by the Confederate army. By the end of the war, the once-prosperous plantations were in ruins.

The capstone of James Island's wartime saga came in the spring of 1865, when Union general William Sherman's military campaign, known as "Sherman's March to the Sea," swung north through the Carolinas. Union troops plundered property and applied a scorched-earth policy that destroyed everything in their path. Among Sherman's regiments were the 45th Illinois and soldier George Holyoke.

It's possible that Holyoke acquired the quilt during Sherman's campaign. Or (as his wife remembered), he may have come into contact with soldiers from another regiment that had battled Confederates on James Island earlier in the war.

Close-up of quilt block

Happily, Mrs. Holyoke's wishes finally came true about 75 years after her donation, when descendents of the Mellichamps contacted the museum after learning of the quilt's existence. They supplied missing information on the James Island families, and deciphered faded, illegible names on the blocks. They also delivered somber news about some of the islanders on the quilt who had served the Confederacy. Edward H. Mellichamp and Joseph M. Mellichamp died as prisoners-of-war. William S. Mellichamp perished at Fort Sumter. Not all ancestors from the quilt suffered unduly during the conflict, though. Stiles Mellichamp, for example, survived the war to work as a civil engineer and edit the Orangeburg Times newspaper. He died in 1922, two years before Mrs. Holyoke donated the quilt to the Society. The first quilt to enter the collections, it is now part of an extensive grouping overseen by the Kansas Museum of History.

Listen to the Civil War Quilt podcast ! Play Audio Tour

Entry: Civil War Quilt

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2010

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.