Saturday, April 27, 2019

Sarah Childress Polk's Civil War

Case Antiques in Tennessee sold this puff or biscuit silk quilt last year.

It went for a lot more than any regular old late-Victorian puff quilt in poor shape
because of its historical associations.
"Tennessee pieced quilt, honeycomb or mosaic pattern, comprised of cotton and velvet pieces with wide black satin border and backing. A signed letter accompanying this lot states that this was a "lap quilt" which once belonged to First Lady Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891) and descended through the family of Ethel Baily and Adair Lyon Childress."

Sarah Childress Polk 1803 –1891
Portrait by George P.A. Healy, 1846
Polk Home Museum 
Sarah's husband was President 1845-1849

Here's a later version of the same technique, three-dimensional squares
filled with batting. This one is tacked in the center.
No tacking stitches in the Polk quilt.

How accurate could that provenance be? Is this bedcover's story, like a crazy quilt linked to Mary Lincoln,  just inflated family tales without historical basis? Did Sarah Polk live long enough to have owned a biscuit quilt?

Sarah lived into her late 80s, until 1891, so was undoubtedly aware of the fashion for silk scrap quilts in the 1880's. This particular puff pattern was never as popular as crazy quilts were but was published about the same time. English authors Sophia Caulfeild and Blanche Saward included instructions for a Raised or Swiss Patchwork quilt in their 1882 book  The Dictionary of Needlework, 
"Raised [patchwork]. — This is also known as Swiss Patchwork, and is made by stuffing the patches out with wadding so that they are well puffed up. The shapes selected for the patches should be either good sized hexagons or diamonds, and only one shape should be used, as intricate patterns made by combining various sized pieces render the work troublesome."
It's totally plausible that Sarah Polk owned this lap quilt in her Nashville home.

That looks like a crazy quilt on the sofa here in her parlor.

One of Sarah's silk dresses. She spent quite a bit
of  her family money on her White House wardrobe.
This one is on view at the Tennessee State Museum.

Sarah's first biographer Anson Nelson mentioned that in her later years:

"Many letters came to her from strangers, making divers requests:... would [she] give items of information regarding some one she had known sixty years ago; that she would grant the favor of a few pieces for a crazy quilt, etc., etc."

Eastman House Museum
Three first ladies in one photograph

An American treasure, this 1848 photograph focuses on Sarah and her circle with James Polk while he was President. At left the woman is Harriet Lane, James Buchanan's niece. The girl is Joanna Rucker, Sarah's niece, and the woman who moved on the right is her friend, a blurred Dolley Madison.

Sarah's jewelry and a reticule (bag)
Photo: Samuel H. Gottscho, Library of Congress

Sarah Childress Polk was a child of Tennessee privilege, daughter of slaveholders and supported by a Mississippi cotton plantation in the antebellum years and through the Civil War. A new biography 
Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy S. Greenberg gives us much information about her marriage to politician James Knox Polk who served one term in the White House.

Polk annexing Texas

The Polks were Southerners and slave holders whose lasting legacy was the Mexican War and subsequent grab of southwestern territory for new Southern agriculture based on a slave economy.

At the time the Democrats' symbol was a rooster.

James Polk died of cholera just three months after leaving the presidency and Sarah at 46 assumed the role of the Victorian widow, dressed perpetually in black, eschewing social events and seeing visitors primarily at home at their retirement house Polk Place.

Nashville in 1856

Sarah and James in 1846
Collection of Polk Home

When the Civil War began Sarah became President of the Nashville Ladies' Aid Society in a Confederate city, but the Union Army soon occupied the Tennessee capitol and Sarah assumed the role of an official neutral, although Union troops were suspicious of her and her Ladies' Aid. An 1863 book about the capture of Nashville had no kind words to say about her:
" There lives a lady in Nashville...extensively known in city and general circles, Mrs. Ex-President Polk. She is a woman of note, wealthy, smart (that is a better term than “talented” in this instance), and was rather at the head of the female sex of that region as regards all the social bearings. Mrs. Polk was a true rebel. She was too shrewd to be violent, however, and too well-bred to evince her dislike openly to even the humblest member of our army. Severely cool and reticent, she was unmolested, and, when necessary for her to approach the military authorities for a pass or other requisites, she was sufficiently bending and gracious to gain her point.
Sarah's home on Vine Street with her husband's tomb in the front yard. 
The house was destroyed in the early 20th century.
"She has no children: she took to nursing the rebellion of the Southern aristocracy. Her influence upon the wealthy females of her city must have been almost unbounded. She was the President of the Nashville Ladies' Southern Aid Society, and occupied much of her time in duties pertaining to that position. The society met at her house occasionally, and at other private houses upon special occasions; but its general place of meeting was at the Masonic Hall. It is stated upon good authority that Mrs. Polk was greatly intent upon urging the men of Nashville to enter the rebel army, and that she advised the young ladies of that city to send petticoats and hoop-skirts to young men who had proved backward in volunteering. Since the permanent occupation of Tennessee by our army, this lady has been entirely unmolested in person and property. When the stables of the town were swept of every serviceable horse for army use, General Rosecrans ordered hers to be exempted, from a proper respect to the past. She now reposes amid comfort and elegance, while desolation sits brooding around her over the face of a once happy and prospering country."    Annals of the Army of the Cumberlands.

Sarah's hands look so arthritic one would doubt she was
stitching any quilts towards the end of her life.

After the war Sarah was in a difficult place as both a symbol of Southern ideals and an honored former First Lady. Greenburg quotes President Grant's opinion that the Mexican War was "one of the most unjust ever waged" and the Civil war was punishment. As a political sophisticate Sarah Polk worked with Republicans to maintain her husband's reputation. She worked to be a symbol of reconciliation, supporting friend Frances Willard's national W.C.T.U. and becoming a vice-president of the D.A.R. that hoped to bring Americans together with pride over an earlier war against a foreign enemy.

Bettie Childress Brown's husband was Governor of Tennessee

But her Tennessee family members were also founders of the KuKluxKlan and niece Bettie Childress Brown was the first President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1895, continuing the myth and divisiveness of a "lost cause."

Read a preview of Amy S. Greenberg's biography Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk:

And read more about Sarah Polk's wonderful wardrobe here. She might have had a lot of silk scraps around the house.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Barbara. Once again I am reminded that though we try, we can not fully step back in time. The Civil War was not only about slavery, as many of us think today. State's rights were a huge issue also.
What a fracturing terrible time it was!


QuiltGranma said...

Well said, Juliein!

Alice Cooksey said...

Sorry but I disagree with the idea that the United Daughters of the Confederacy represented divisiveness and racism. I certainly would not equate it with the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. I say this based on my study and master's thesis on a woman who was very active in the UDC in Texas as well as the politics of the time from 1900-1920. I truly believe her motivation was to honor her family. Just my two cents worth.
Thanks for all your links and photos and stories. I am a big fan of yours. Honest, I am. Just take a look at my Pinterest will see your name listed on most of my quilt boards.


mbritton said...

I am amazed at and love your study of the civil war and especially the womens' history. You give us such a wonderful glimpse into their history and also the history of quilting. Thanks for all your hard work and efforts to spread the love of quilting.