Blast from the Past: Mittens and Slippers during the American Civil War

Bloodiest War in History

War Between the States

War of Secession

War of the Rebellion

Mr. Lincoln’s War

No matter what it was called, the American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, was a brutal one – not only for the men who fought on both sides, but for those who remained at home. No one was spared the physical and emotional tragedy.

Supplies for the soldiers were in great demand. There were shortages of tents, blankets, uniforms and bandages. These were not items that could simply be ordered from a manufacturer…they needed to be created by hand. And the people who created these items – both in the North and the South – were the women on the homefront.

Some of the most important items women made were mittens and socks! The war was fought through treacherous weather and soldiers need plenty of warm clothing. Women also received news from the warfront that soldiers were wearing out their socks at an alarming rate due to the drastic conditions in the field. One estimate is that soldiers went through one pair of socks each week.[1]

So women began to knit. They knit at home and in knitting circles with other women. They knew that their knitted products would be durable and provide comfort to their loved ones far from home. Their work at home also gave women enormous satisfaction that they were doing everything possible to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their soldiers.

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Directions for Knitting Mittens, ca. 1862, Printed for the Women’s Central Relief Association, New York, the New-York Historical Society, New York NY.

Here is a pattern that was distributed to women in New York who volunteered to knit mittens for the Army. What is unusual about this diagram? The index finger is separated from the rest of the fingers! That’s because soldiers needed this finger free to use their weapon triggers.

Women had to know what they were doing when sewing these patterns! They even liked to refer to their needles as “weapons” in the fight to win the War. Some sewing groups gave themselves names that referenced fighting, like “The Needle Regiments” in Mississippi.[2]

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Pattern, “Hospital Slippers for the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union…patterns and directions furnished gratis by Henry C. Blair, Druggist, Philadelphia,” ca. 1861, The New-York Historical Society, New York, NY.

Here is a wonderful pattern for slippers to relieve the cold feet of soldiers in the hospital. Because there were enormous shortages of fabric and other materials, this pattern specifies that the sewer can use anything they find…even carpeting!  It also says they can be completed in one hour, making it very ideal for the busy women at home.

The work done by the women on the homefront during the American Civil War was crucial to the success of their soldiers, so it was rare to see anyone sitting down without some form of sewing or knitting in their hands. And those in the field encouraged this valiant work. One nurse wrote to her friends back home that they should “knit, knit, knit, and let it be stockings. Illness comes from cold feet, and there are hundreds who have either no stockings at all, or such as have been worn a month or more.”[3]

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Engraving, Six and Eighty-Six Knitting for the Soldiers, 1865, from Frank B. Goodrich, The Tribute Book, courtesy of Lynne Z. Bassett

Families, make sure to visit the special exhibition Homefront & Battlefiled: Quilts and Context in the Civil War and explore the Civil War through our vacation week programming. We’ll have scavenger hunts, family quizzes, and on April 13 we’ll have Civil War reenactors!



[1] Abby H. Woolsey to My Dear Girls, 6 December 1861, Box 185, letter 188, Woolsey Family Civil War Letters, Bellamy-Ferriday House Archives, Bethlehem, CT., quoted in Homefront & Battlefield: Quits & Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Basset, 2012, American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA.

[2] Natchez Daily Courier, September 10, 1861, quoted in Homefront & Battlefield: Quits & Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Basset, 2012, American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA.

[3] Letters from Abby Hopper Gibbons, November 1861, Life of Abby Hopper Gibbons: Told Chiefly through Her Correspondence, ed. Sarah Hopper Emerson, vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897), 300, quoted in Homefront & Battlefield: Quits & Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Basset, 2012, American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA.

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