Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Fisk Sanitary Commission Quilt

During the Civil War the Union Sanitary Commission
collected bedding for hospitalized soldiers and 
encouraged women to make and donate quilts.

This summer the Pasadena History Museum is showing a quilt date-inscribed 1864 with the Sanitary Commission stamp on the back.

The label tells the story about a war-time romance.
The quilt led to the marriage of
Captain Robert E. Fisk and Elizabeth Chester.

Captain R.E. Fisk
New York Infantry

Robert Fisk was recovering from wounds in a North Carolina hospital when a representative of the Sanitary Commission gave him a quilt made by a group in Vernon, Connecticut, in 1864.

The Fisk quilt is in the collection of the 
Lincoln Memorial Shrine
in Redlands, California

Block inked Rowena A. Clark

Mrs. Mary Hall

Mrs. Ruth Baker

Vernon Center in 1836

Several Mrs. and Misses signed the blocks. Robert Fisk wrote Miss Fannie Chester thanking them for the gift. She'd apparently written her name and that of Lissie C. Corbin on a sheet of paper included with the quilt. His letter has been published:

September 18, 1864
Miss Fannie Chester:
This is to show that I am the recipient, through the U.S. Sanitary Commission of the Patchwork bed cover or quilt, which you had a hand in constructing.
I am deeply sensible of the obligation I am under to you and your fair companions for this your contribution to my comfort....I am proud to testify to the many sterling virtues of New England women: endowed, generally, with rarest gifts of face and from, and educated in head and heart to adorn the loftiest sphere of the sex, the women of New England stand preeminent in the estimation of their countrymen as the truest sweethearts, the best wives, and most perfect mothers in the land.
I should be much please to hear that this note reached you in safety.....

Union soldiers at the Foster Hospital 
in New Bern, North Carolina

(I hoped to see Fannie Chester's name on the quilt but it was displayed on a flat table. I couldn't get close enough to read all the names and did not find hers. It may not be on there, but only on the slip of paper she enclosed.)

The Mrs. in the group thought 16-year-old Fannie too young to write to a stranger, so older sister Lizzie wrote Fisk explaining that there would be no correspondence from Fannie.

October 3, 1864
Capt. R.E.Fisk,
A few days since, I had the pleasure of receiving two letters written by you addressed to my sister, Miss Fannie Chester, and Lissie C. Corbin. The former being at present busily engaged in school duties and the latter having reached the very mature age of (to use her own words) "two old last July." I have been deputed to answer the said communications..."

Elizabeth Chester Fisk 1846-1927

Undeterred, Capt Fish wondered if Lizzie might be interested in corresponding with a lonely soldier?

The story of Lizzie and Robert has been published many times. Below may be the earliest.

Romance of Marriage.
From the Tolland Connecticut Journal, 1867 
Two weeks ago we published the marriage in this town of Capt. Robert E. Fiske (sic), editor of the Helena (Montana) Herald, to Miss Lizzie Chester. Since that time we have learned that there is a romance connected with this affair which is worth telling. When the war of the rebellion broke out Mr. Fiske was a resident of New York, from which State he enlisted in the union army and attained to the rank of captain. In some one of the engagements he was wounded, and taken to an army hospital.-- 
While he was thus confined, it appears that the ladies of our town of Vernon were at work for the soldiers, and among other things which they provided and sent as hospital stores, was an "album bedquilt," containing the names of the several ladies who assisted in its construction. As luck would have it, this bedquilt found its way to the hospital and the very bed upon which the wounded captain lay; and for amusement he copied the names, sending his letter or photograph, or both, to the address of every lady. One of these letters was received by a little girl, who procured the services of Miss Chester to reply. 
We need not particularize further, but it was simply through the agency of this album bedquilt that captain Fiske heard of Miss Chester, and now, after the lapse of two years, that acquaintance has culminated in marriage, and the gallant officer has taken his fair lady to his home in the far west.

Berthold photo of the Fisk Expedition to the
 Montana Territory in 1866 

Robert's brother James organized several immigrant treks. Robert joined other family members on the 1866 journey to Montana, then returned to Connecticut to marry Lizzie on March 21, 1867.

Helena, Montana in 1872.
Five Fisk brothers were among influential Montana settlers.

Helena Herald, 1875

Robert, whose letters to Lizzie must have been quite persuasive, was editor of the Helena Herald. Three of his brothers were also newspapermen.
Robert Fisk

Robert and Lizzie kept the quilt that brought them together. Both became important social leaders in Helena.

All I could read in this block is the date 1864.

Robert, Lizzie and children in front of their Helena house built in 1871

The Fisks added to this structure, which survives as a larger house. See a National Park Service post on the Fisk house and the family.

Berkeley train station, 1907

In 1902 they sold the newspaper and moved to Berkeley, California, Somehow the quilt made its way to the Lincoln Memorial Shrine museum and temporarily to the display at the Pasadena History Museum.

I published the tale of the Fisk romance in my book Quilts From the Civil War. I had no idea that the quilt survived. I'd seen snapshots of an album quilt on display at the Lincoln Shrine but did not find any references to the quilt's history so didn't know until I saw the label at the Pasadena museum that this was indeed the famous romantic bedquilt.

The quilt seems to have been
on permanent display at the
 Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands

It's another relatively rare example of written history and an antique quilt coming together.

Read Wilene Smith's post on the Fisks here:

The Fisk papers are conserved in the Northwest Digital Archive.
The collection include Lizzie's letters and diaries and a story by daughter Florence Fisk White. " 'The Autograph Quilt,' tells the of a quilt made for Civil War soldiers, and how it led to Elizabeth meeting her future husband."

Lizzie's papers and the early letters between Captain Fisk and the Chester girls have been published in book form:
Lizzie: The Letters of Elizabeth Chester Fisk, 1864-1893, edited by Rex C. Myers (Missoula: Mountain Press, 1989)

See more about the Lincoln Memorial Shrine here:

I found a little about another woman on the quilt, Rowena Clark was born in Vernon about 1838 and married Frederick Edward Stanley in 1884, so she was in her mid-twenties when the quilt was made.


Suzanne A said...

How exciting it must have been for you to see the quilt "in person" after knowing so much about it, but not realizing it still existed. Thanks for bring us your story as well as the Fisks'.

Marly said...

What an interesting story. It really underlines the importance of labelling too.

Jacqueline said...

You always have the most interesting history to share with us. Thanks

abelian said...

This quilt is the inspiration for the Home of the Brave Quilt Project, which sends replicas of the quilt to the families of fallen soldiers.

Vicki W said...

What a great story! Thank you!

Kimberly Smith said...

The Sanitary Commission quilts are a source of never-ending fascination to me. Thank you for posting this detailed information and links. I truly appreciate your scholarship and sharing, Ms. Brackman.

Jeanne said...

Love the story. I live it CT and attend Quilt Guild meetings in the First Congregational Church of Vernon. I have been a member for over 20 years. Here is an article about the church.

Unknown said...

Those were such amazing women, who shouldered so much during a cruel era. Imagine what it was like ... none of what we consider 'must haves' in the homes, traveling would be horrid etc. Such a beautiful love story, thank you for sharing this with use.
I am a tad surprise at the small size of these quilts. Perhaps folks were smaller too?

Thanks again
(Last name VERNON!)

Pam Weeks said...

The Fisk quilt was on display at the Lincoln Shrine in Redlands for years until Donald Beld suggested that it be taken down for a rest. We examined it there about 5 years ago. Elizabeth Chester did not sign the quilt, and it was her parents who suggested that she answer Captain Fisk's letter to her younger sister.

Barbara Brackman said...

Thanks, Pam, for the info. I could see the quilt had faded so am glad it will not be going back to permanent display. What fun it was to see it.

Rosa said...

Thanks ,great story and I hope to label my next quilt.