Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Mary Shawhan Dudley's Civil War


Mary made a wondrous quilt but we have no idea what it looked like or where it is today. It seems, however, to have included everything. When the Civil War began Mary Birch Shawhan was living in Missouri, working on a monumental quilt project she apparently began in Kentucky in 1852.

Her first draft, perhaps, was mentioned in 1856 in a small feature widely copied around the country. Is her quilt pieced of simple strips of inked linen? Could find no record of it at any 1856 Kentucky fairs.

Augusta, Georgia, a little rewriting.

In 1852, possibly inspired by a fashion for quilts celebrating Whig politician Kentucky's Henry Clay, she'd begun writing to noted men, asking for their autographs. 

Like many determined autograph hounds she could be a pest and poor Henry Clay, two months short of dying from tuberculosis, explained he could no longer gather signatures from colleagues like President Fillmore. He did ask friend John Crittenden to take over the task, however.

When the war began Mary seems to have sent out another round of letters. Correspondents responded with Union sentiments. The quilt evolved into a pictorial extravaganza.

Descriptions of Mary's quilt in 1880

It is interesting that Mary is using her maiden name.

Mary Magdalene Birch Shawhan Dudley (1818-1909) about 1900

In 1861 Mary Shawhan (1818-1909) was a widow. Husband Joseph Shawhan (1802-1850), whom she married in 1835, had gone to California with the gold-seeking '49ers where he died, leaving her with a young son John Erskine Shawhan (1838-1905). A girl Anna had died as a child in the 1830s.

Mary's father-in-law built this house near Cynthiana in 1816.
The Shawhans were prosperous land owners.

Mary's father Jamaica-born Thomas E. Birch fought in the Revolution under John Paul Jones, family history that entitled her to be honored as a "Real" Daughter of the Revolution by the D.A.R. She was one of the last surviving actual daughters of a revolutionary soldier.

The Virginia Birches moved to Kentucky where Mary was born. Like many Kentuckians, Birches moved west to Missouri. Mary's brothers and sisters were established in Clinton County, north of Kansas City where she joined them in the late 1850s.

James Harvey Birch (1804-1878)

Brother James went to St. Louis in 1826 to edit a newspaper and wound up in Plattsburg, Missouri as a distinguished judge, politician and Union sympathizer during the Civil War, despite his slave ownership. 
With his second wife Elizabeth Carter Frost Birch (cousin to Robert E. Lee) he held 9 people in slavery at their farm Prairie Park in 1860---6 males and 3 females ranging from 11 years old to 38. Elizabeth  probably brought that human property with her from her first marriage.
Brother Thomas owned a store in Plattsburg where Mary's son John became a young partner and then owner. Her son's 20th-century obituary called him Plattsburg's "leading merchant." 

The 1860 census found Mary Shawhan in Plattsburg, listed in a boarding house
as "Dom"---probably meaning Domestic. Was she the house servant in
the home? Son John was married to another Mary Shawhan and father of a
baby boy in that Missouri census.

Plattsburg in the early 20th century

We often find quilt feats accomplished by women who have family in the fabric business.

2 quilts, wool and cotton---premiums of cash.

The Birch family with their Virginia and Kentucky attitudes were like many Missourians during the war, conflicted about loyalties. James advocated a Constitutional right to own slaves but he was enough of a Unionist that Confederate guerilla fighters attacked their home.

From the Clinton County history.
All-star bushwhacker cast: Quantrell, Gregg, Andersons and James boys.

Another Confederate attack "plundered our merchants, Mr. John E. Shawhan being robbed of more than $10,000."

After the war in 1870 Mary remarried to farmer Abraham F. Dudley (1808-1875). She was a devout Baptist and his uncle was a well-known Baptist preacher. Religion must have been a common interest. 

In the 1870s after moving over 100 miles east to his farm in Audrain County she continued working on her quilt, soliciting autographs and obtaining one from Missouri Unionist James S. Rollins. We find her winning certificates at fairs like this one in Mexico, Missouri, the Audrain County seat where she entered both a cotton and a silk quilt.

We'd certainly like to see Mrs. W. H. Cartwright's work
who bested her in both categories.

Abraham Dudley did not live long after their marriage, suffering a fatal attack at the beginning of a train trip to California.

November, 1875

Mary spent the last three decades of her life as a Missouri widow, cared for by relatives as she aged. The quilt and its prizes, which continued to occupy her, was celebrated in an article in the St. Joseph Gazette in 1880 (Scroll down to see the whole article.)

How could such a quilt disappear?

The 1880 article in the St. Joseph Gazette

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