Knitting for the troops is an idea that has been around for a long time. As such, I’ve decided to use 4 of the 48 weeks on knitting and war, the (American) Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. While all efforts made similar things for soldiers, for each war there was a unique set of tools (some would say propaganda, depending) used to get the word out about the initiative. As these tools are not too widely known, I’d like to share them here, along with a number of accounts related to knitting for the war. Have any that I missed? Got a historical craftivist event that you’d like to write about? Get in touch either through the comments or through email.
Below are quotes (which take you to further reading material) and photos that I’ve found on the subject, in case you’d like to learn more.
“South Carolina resident Mary Chesnut commented in her diary late in the summer of 1861, “I do not know when I have seen a woman without knitting in her hand.” In the North as well as in the South, knitting needles clicked incessantly during the Civil War years (1861-1865).
Although machine-knitted stockings were widely available, they were considered inferior to handknit stockings and wore out quickly from the rigors of long marches and insufficient washing.
The call for handknitted stockings went out throughout the country. Stories of soldiers going barefoot or suffering from blistered, swollen, and infected feet from wearing their boots without stockings spurred females young and old to take up their knitting needles.”
Oh women of the sunny South
We want you in the field;
Not with a soldier’s uniform,
Nor sword, nor spear, nor shield;
But with a weapon quite as keen—
The knitting needle bright—
And willing hands to knit for those
Who for our country fight.
Then let the cry go far and near
And reach you every one—
Socks! socks are needed—send them on
For every gallant son!
Shall those who bear the Summer’s heat,
And Winter’s cold and rain,
Barefooted trudge o’er bleeding fields,
Our liberty to gain?
No! Georgia’s daughters will arise,
And answer to the call;
We’ll send you socks for our brave boys,
Some large, and others small.
With every stitch we’ll pray that God
Will shield each gallant form;
And while they fight with willing hands
We’ll work to keep them warm.
Our brave boys shall not bear alone
The burden of the day,
We’ll toil for them with willing hands,
And watch, and hope, and pray!
With useful hands to work at home,
And fighting men abroad,
We’ll conquer if we only place
A holy trust in God.
We cannot sit with idle hands,
And let our brave boys fight;
Not while the motto on each heart
Is Liberty and Right!
What though we cannot wield the sword,
We’re with you, hand and heart,
And every daughter of the South
Will bravely act her part.
We’re in the field—then send us thread,
As much as you can spare,
And socks we’ll furnish for our troops,
Yea, thousands through the year.
Ho for the knitting needle, then,
To work without delay.
Hurrah! we’ll try our best to knit
A pair of socks a day!
p. 46: In August 1861, a Virginia woman was the voice of many Confederate women during the early months of the war: “We are now very busy making clothes, knitting socks for the soldiers. Each lady proposes making one hundred garments – some are making mattresses, preparing bandages and knit nightshirts and comforts for the wounded – all are doing the most they can to add to the comforts of the soldiers.”
P. 48: “Knit socks, mittens, gloves, and scarves could also forge intimate links between knitters and soldiers, a link that, at times, helped a soldier survive. The father of Mrs. I. E. Doane walked for six months after he was released from a Yankee prison at the end of the war. After reaching his South Carolina home, he told her his own story about knitting: “a profitable little trading business he had developed while in prison. His initial stock consisted of some knit gloves, socks and other articles which his wife had sent him. It had been very cold that winter and these warm articles of clothing were in great demand.”
The following lines were found in a bundle of socks, sent by a “Lively Old
Lady,” in Amherst, N.H., to the U.S. Hospital, corner of Broad and Cherry
By the fireside, cosily seated,
With spectacles riding her nose,
The lively old lady is knitting
A wonderful pair of Hose.
She pities the shivering soldier,
Who is out in the pelting storm;
And busily plies her needles,
To keep him hearty and warm.
Her eyes are reading the embers,
But her heart is off to the War,
For she knows what those brave fellows
Are gallantly fighting for.
Her fingers as well as her fancy,
Are cheering them on their way;
Who under the good old banner,
Are saving their Country to-day.
She ponders how in her childhood,
Her Grandmother used to tell –
The story of barefoot soldiers,
Who fought so long and well.
And the men of the Revolution
Are nearer to her than us;
And that, perhaps, is the reason
Why she is toiling thus.
She cannot shoulder a musket,
Nor ride with Cavalry crew,
But nevertheless she is ready
To work for he boys who do.
And yet in “Official Dispatches,”
That come from the Army or Fleet,
Her feats may have never a notice,
Though ever so mighty the feet!
So prithee, proud owner of muscle,
Or purse-proud owner of stocks,
Don’t sneer at the labors of woman,
Or smile at her bundle of socks.
Her heart may be larger and braver
Than his who is tallest of all,
The work of her hand as important,
As cash that buys powder and ball.
And thus while her quiet performance
Is being recorded in rhyme,
The tools in her tremulous fingers
Are running a race with time.
Strange that four needles can form
A perfect triangular bound;
And equally strange that their antics
Result in perfecting the round.
And now, while beginning “to narrow,”
She thinks of the Maryland mud,
And wonders if ever the stocking
Will wade to the ancle in blood.
And now she is |”shaping the heel;”
And now she is ready “to bind;”
And hopes if the soldier is wounded,
It will never be from behind.
And now she is “raising the instep,”
Now “narrowing off at the toe,”
And prays that this end of the worsted
May never be turned to the foe.
She “gathers” the last of the stitches
As if a new laurel were won;
And placing the ball in the basket,
Announces the stocking as “done.”
Ye men who are fighting our battles,
Away from the comforts of life,
Who thot’fully muse by your campfires,
On sweetheart, or sister, or wife, –
Just think of their elders a little,
And pray for the grandmothers too,
Who, patiently sitting in corners,
Are knitting the stockings for you.
~ published, Tuesday, December 22, 1863
Republican Advocate, Batavia, Genesee County, N.Y.
*transcribed & submitted by Linda Schmidt
Besides instilling ideas of womanhood and religion in students, teachers also stressed patriotism. For example, George Washington’s birthday in 1862 was celebrated at Ohio Female College with fireworks, a balloon ascension, and the singing of national songs. Gilchrist happily wrote, “We were excused from the regular Saturday morning study hours and visiting was in order all day.”81 As the Civil War progressed, schools all over the country encouraged patriotism by organizing groups of students to aid the war effort by knitting, sewing, and performing benefits.82 At Ohio Female College, Gilchrist wrote, “The girls are making lint for the wounded soldiers now, just to think what it is for.”83
A pair of handknitted Civil War mittens up for auction:
Unrelated, yet related:
“The Civil War surgeon could often be wounded or even killed. Hospitals sites were chosen close to the line and where water was available. Improvisation, particularly for the Confederate surgeon, was the name of the game. Hunter McGuire on the adaptability of the Confederate surgeon:
The pliant bark of a tree made for him a good tourniquet; the juice of the green persimmon, a styptic; a knitting needle, with it’s point sharply bent a tenaculum; and a pen knife, in his hand, a scalpel and bistoury. I have seen him break off one prong of a common table fork, bend the point of the other prong and with it elevate the bone in a depressed fracture of the skull and save life.”
“Wives, mothers, and sweethearts sent Christmas packages to their special loved ones; women’s organizations sent boxes filled with food, books, and clothing to companies and camps. Richmond resident Sallie B. Putnam wrote in her memoirs, Richmond during the Civil War, that the ladies of the Confederate capital diligently knitted socks, mittens, and scarves for soldiers. According to Putnam, antebellum Richmond had become so dependant on manufactured goods that most young women had not been taught to knit but gladly learned as their part in the war effort.”
It has been wisely suggested by a contemporary that the patriotic women of the country should knit socks for the volunteers. In addition to this we beg leave to call the attention of the true hearted women of the country to
some other points.
There will be, if the war continues, a scarcity of blankets, woolen cloth, flannel, etc. These our soldiers will need. As regards blankets, each family can spare some. Those who stay at home can use counterpanes and comforts. The latter are easily and cheaply made, are warm and will supply the places of blankets in the house.—Let the ladies, or to use a better and nobler word, the women, set about making comforters for their beds, and be enabled to send blankets to the army. Except in cases of sickness, the use of blankets in the houses can be dispensed with. . . .