Friday, July 15, 2016

History of Knitting: Part V, Civil War Socks

Christmas Boxes in Camp, 1861 by Winslow Homer *
Before automobiles, the easiest way to get an army from Point A to Point B was to walk.  Civil War soldiers typically walked 10 to 15 miles in a day ... it was hard on their shoes, but also hard on their socks.  While both the Union and Confederacy army issued their soldiers with socks, the men quickly learned that it wasn't enough.  They needed more socks!  Letters from both sides in the war, contain pleas to their wives, mothers and sisters to send more socks!

Union soldier L.W. Wolcott wrote to his mother on September 22, 1862: 
If this reached you in time I wish you would send me my rubber blanket, two pair of homemade socks (they are so much better than we can get), a good stout tablefork and a spoon as it is impossible to get them here.  The socks Mrs. Lockwood gave me are about worn out but the towel does good service yet. 
It warms any knitter's heart to hear someone say that a pair of homemade socks are "... so much better than we can get," and I can imagine Wolcott's mother picking up her knitting needles the second she put down his letter!

Private Joseph Saberton of Company C, 25th Indiana Volunteer Infantry wrote to his brother on November 20, 1862: 
Those socks you sent me came in just the time.  Our boys are mighty hard up for socks, they have neither socks, or drawers.
Side Note:  So what are "drawers"?  Underwear.  Men in the 19th century didn't wear the briefs or boxers of today, instead they wore long cotton pants under their wool trousers to keep clean (drawers were washed more frequently than the trousers) and to prevent itching in delicate areas.

Six and Eighty-Six Knitting for the Soldiers, 1865 **
Take a look at Winslow Homer's engraving of Christmas in a Union Civil War camp above.  How many pairs of socks do you see?  One soldier is so excited to receive new socks he is gleefully waving a sock over his head, and two soldiers are putting on their new socks right now!  The sock-wearer in the center didn't even bother to cut the two socks apart; he is putting on one while its mate is still attached at the toe.  

Want to try knitting a pair of Civil War socks?  Here is an original pattern from 1865, posted by the Atlantic Guard Soldier's Aid Society (a Civil War reenacting group).  It's fun to read, but hard to knit - primarily because knitting terms have changed over the years ... you'll feel like you're reading a foreign language.  However, all is not lost!  The March / April 2009 edition of Piecework has wonderful patterns for both a Union sock and a Confederate sock, written for the modern knitter and available on Ravelry.

Need help with your socks?  The staff at FiberWild! have knit many socks, both modern and historic patterns.  Give us a call, we're happy to help!

Civil War woman knitting.  Perhaps socks?
Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

* "Christmas Boxes in Camp - Christmas 1861" by Winslow Homer and published in Harper's Weekly on January 4, 1862.

** "Six and Eighty-Six Knitting for the Soldiers" is from The Tribute Book:  A Record of the Munificence, Self-Sacrifice and Patriotism of the American People during the War for the Union (yup, that's the whole title) by Frank Goodrich.  Published in 1865, it highlights the aid societies and volunteer work done by many, and especially women, during the Civil War.  Click here to see a digital copy of it in the Hathi Digital Trust.

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