Thursday, November 06, 2008

Textile History and the Battle of Droop Mountain

Today is the anniversary of the 1863 Battle of Droop Mountain. The reenactors visited last month, when the weather is more likely to be pleasant, but 145 years ago, the Yankees were bombarding our ridge with cannon fire, and the Confederate troops were dug in across the road, where you can still see the remains of their earthworks in Droop Mountain Battlefield Park.

Pearl S. Buck's novelized biography of her mother, Caroline Stulting Sydesntricker, The Exile (1936) includes an account of that battle, a major event in Carie's childhood memories. This book is out of print, unfortunately, because I think it is one of Buck's best works, and its it gives a vivid impression of time and place. Here's a favorite excerpt:

The postwar period in the life of the little West Virginia town [called Hillsboro now] was one of deep spiritual fervor coupled with necessarily ascetic living. This atmosphere was the air which she breathed in her youth, and which forever placed a check upon a nature that was at heart sensuous and beauty-loving. But it gave also the opportunity for experience of many sorts and in this her varied mind delighted. I remember her saying once, "I have done every kind of work needed to maintain life and I am glad of it. After the Civil War there were no shops, nothing to be bought. We grew our own flax and we spun linen thread and made our own sheets and table cloths and inner clothing. We dyed our dresses from cotton and linen thread we had made ourselves and we wove it. I learned to know what colors could be made from different herbs and barks and from roots of many kinds. Sometimes our experiments were failures and we had to wear them just the same. And we sheared sheep and washed the wool and carded it and spun it and wove it. I am glad I learned how to do everything."

This has been my standard of textile austerity for the Civil War era, but not long ago, I ran across an excerpt from Godey's Lady's Book, 1866, entitled Dress Under Difficulties: American Civil War Fashions in the South During the Blockade. Whoever wrote this had a different definition of austerity.

Let those who have never experienced it set their imaginations to work and conceive, if they possibly can, what must have been the condition of ladies in society - and very gay society, too - cut off for four years from their supplies of new dresses, shoes, gloves, linen, buttons, pins and needles, ribbons, trimmings and laces, not to mention the more urgent necessities of new bonnets, hoop-skirts and fashion-plates! How we patched and pieced and ripped and altered! How we cut out, and turned and twisted; how we made our new dress out of two old ones; how we squeezed new waists out of single breadths taken from skirts which could ill spare a single fold; how we worked and strained to find out new fashions and then worked and strained a little harder to adopt them - all these things form chapters in the lives of most of us, which will not be easily forgotten. Those who wish to learn economy in perfection, as well as those who interest themselves in curious invention, will do well to study the experience of the blockaded devotee of fashion.

1 comment:

Margaret Worth said...

Rebecca,
Thank you for this posting. What amazing images one can conjure... I can't really imagine how difficult these times must have been, but I still believe it would be wonderful to experience.

Margaret Worth