BENNINGTON, VT. — While U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan after 15 years, and the global reach of World War II's six years was unprecedented in scope, the American Civil War remains the nation's bloodiest conflict, with about 1.1 million casualties and nearly 620,000 lives claimed.
Away from its battlefields, however, a different kind of contest emerged, one that was indirectly tied to the front lines, but rooted in the patriotic fervor of women: quilt making.
Women both North and South launched major morale as well as fundraising drives for the troops by making some of the most beautiful eye-catching pieces of American folk art.
Of the thousands of quilts made during this time period, one stands out to this day as the paradigm from which all others are compared: The so-called Stickle Quilt, now on display at the Bennington Museum for its annual viewing through Oct. 10.
Museum curator Jamie Franklin said the quilt's history includes a bit of whimsy, as the institution also owns a watercolor by its creator, Jane Stickle (1817-1896), but no definitive record of procurement.
"The quilt was given to the museum around the same time the watercolor by Stickle was given to us by her niece, Louise Blakely Bump, so we presume she was the donor," Franklin said. "However, we have no records for the acquisition of the quilt itself. Based on the accession numbers of both objects they likely came to us around 1938."
The Jane Stickle Quilt, Franklin continued, is only shown for a short time each year due to the fragility of the fabric.
Quilters from around the country and world come to Bennington every fall to view it, he said.
Its exhibit typically coincides with the popular Bennington QuiltFest, which will be held this Saturday and Sunday at Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington.
Jane Stickle was born Jane Blakely on April 8, 1817, in Shaftsbury, Vt.
Her quilt is comprises of 169 five-inch blocks, each in different patterns, containing a total of 5,602 pieces surrounded by a unique scalloped border.
As a reminder of the tempestuous era, Stickle embroidered "In War Time 1863" into the quilt, according to Pamela Weeks, Binney Family Curator at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Mass.
"Jane Stickle made that quilt in time of war, to use her words," Weeks said. "Our research revealed that she was an invalid, yet managed to collect many different fabrics to make a quilt to pass the time. She had several nephews who were serving in the Civil War, so perhaps the quilt kept her mind engaged and not to worry."
Weeks added that the Stickle Quilt is a masterwork of design and construction, and a very unusual one for the period.
"No fabric is repeated, and many are original designs," she said.
As part of the Stickle Quilt viewing, the museum will also host a lecture by costume and textile historian Lynne Bassett at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24, titled "Herstory."
Bennington Museum director of public programs Deana Mallory said that looking at the Civil War through textiles allows viewers of the Stickle and other such quilts to consider the experience of the war through other means than the traditional study of strategy and deification of battle heroes.
"In both unspoken and apparent ways, quilts offer us the prospect to appreciate the home front experience of women," Mallory said.
She explained that Bassett's lecture will focus on the quilts that women created to declare their patriotism and support their fighting menfolk, including the Stickle Quilt.
Bassett said that the message in a Civil War quilt depends on who made it, the fabrics that appear in it, who owned it, and the circumstances under which it was made.
"[I'll] offer stories about all of these aspects of Civil War quilts," Bassett said. "Quilts [were] made as gifts for soldiers, as expressions of patriotism, as solace for worry or mourning, and in celebration of the end of the war."
Bassett added that she would like those who attend her talk to walk away with an appreciation for the power of quilts to embody and express history, specifically "women's history, family history, local history, and national history."
She also emphasized that the importance of the Stickle Quilt's presence at the Bennington Museum couldn't be emphasized enough in the context of her lecture.
"The Jane Stickle Quilt is important for its value as a teaching tool," Bassett said. "It attracted interest first because of its remarkable design and construction, but that interest has led to a deeper consideration of its place in Civil War history. [It's] a hook to entice people to take an interest in American history."
ON EXHIBIT ...
What: The Stickle Quilt
When: On view through Oct. 10
Where: Bennington Museum, 75 Main St. Bennington, Vt.
Information: 802-447-1571, or visit benningtonmuseum.org