On October 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln met with General George B. McClellan near the site of the battle of Antietam. Sixteen days earlier, McClellan had turned back General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, in what remains the bloodiest single day in American history. A photograph by Alexander Gardner shows the president and his general facing each other across a table in McClellan’s tent.
The Union forces had claimed victory at Antietam, but McClellan then let Lee retreat unhindered, in defiance of Lincoln’s orders. On November 5, Lincoln removed McClellan from command.
The meeting on October 2 cannot have been a pleasant one. McClellan had turned what should have been a decisive victory into a stalemate, and may well have prolonged the war. There was no love lost between the two men. McClellan, a railroad executive before the war, had supported Stephen Douglas, the Democratic candidate in the 1860 Presidential election. McClellan himself would run against Lincoln as the Democratic candidate in 1864.
Artifacts and images of the Civil War touch something deep in the American soul. The Civil War was the second American founding, much closer to us in meaning and texture as well as time than the Revolutionary War. Among the reasons, perhaps, should be counted photography. Alexander Gardner’s posed image of Lincoln and McClellan contrasted with his horrific scenes of Antietam’s battlefield carnage. Until Gardner published these photos, such devastation had been seen only by survivors of such battles. Goya’s print series, The Disasters of War, depicting the atrocities committed in Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, is more wrenching in its depictions of cruelty and suffering, but Gardner’s corpses touch something else. Strewn zig-zag where they fell, crumpled behind fences, or laid out like railroad ties, they have an awful individuality.
The photograph of Lincoln and McClellan is the afterimage of the slaughter. Everything is crystal clear, as the two men hold their poses for the camera. Lincoln looks somber; McClellan glares at him. An American flag is draped over the table, and Lincoln’s stovepipe hat rests on it next to two half-burnt candlesticks. Perhaps they are holding down loose papers, or perhaps McClellan has been reading and disobeying orders by candlelight.
The Confederate flag lies on the ground beneath the Stars and Stripes. On another table is draped a blanket—or rather, a coverlet. Gardner’s photograph was reproduced in Smithsonian magazine in January 2009, where it caught the eye of Rita Hagenbruch, a weaver. Hagenbruch blew up the detail of the coverlet, deciphered the pattern, and wove a reproduction of it for the June 2010 exhibition Looking for Lincoln. Hagenbruch then published a brief how-to guide for other weavers, “Reproduce a Coverlet that was with Lincoln at Antietam,” which appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Interweave magazine.
Hagenbruch did not aim at exact reproduction. That would have required duplicating a threading error the original weaver had made, and another error in the treadling. A coverlet differs from a quilt, which is patched together out of existing pieces. A coverlet is made entire and requires considerable ability with a loom. Hagenbruch observed that this particular coverlet had been woven in two parts, which were then sewn together, probably because the weaver didn’t have a loom large enough to do the whole thing at once. (Hagenbruch didn’t reach for the inviting metaphor of a coverlet, divided into two parts, each with flaws, but stitched into a whole. But it does seem felicitous that such an object should be part of Gardner’s photograph.)
The story doesn’t quite end there. A Vermont weaver, Bonny Dutton, who has a shop in Ludlow called Fleece on Earth, took up Hagenbruch’s reconstructed design and made her own version of what, for lack of a better name, I’ll called the Antietam Coverlet.
Dutton’s Reproduction of the Antietam Coverlet
How the Antietam coverlet found its way into the photograph of Lincoln and McClellan is lost to history. Dutton plausibly speculates that it belonged to McClellan. He was the child of a prosperous Philadelphia physician married to an upper-crust wife. Mrs. McClellan had been the daughter of his commander at West Point. The McClellans were not country folk who wove their household goods out of necessity. The industrial revolution had put most cottage weavers out of business by the 1850s, but a small number of professional artisans carried on, including the “Weaver Rose” family of Rhode Island. As often happens, when cheap industrial-made goods flood the market, the older hand-made versions gain a mystique. As Dutton told me, “the fiber arts became a hobby during this era and wealthy women did spinning, needlepoint, tatting, embroidery, and weaving.” She notes that because the Antietam coverlet exhibited errors, it was not professionally done.
So the Antietam coverlet was home-made during an era of industrial textiles—and home-made by someone who was not expert at the craft. Dutton suggests that it was the kind of gift a Penelope might have given her Odysseus. “Perhaps a family member gave her handiwork to McClellan as he went off to war?”
The word for things turning into their opposites is enantiodromia, as when the benevolent Dr. Jekyll turns into the predatory Mr. Hyde, or something bitter turns sweet. When the proprietor of Fleece on Earth weaves a coverlet memorializing the slaughter of thousands of young men at Antietam weaves a coverlet memorializing the slaughter of thousands of young men at Antietam, enantiodromia is the right ten-dollar word. Of course, peace on earth does not ultimately come from rifles and cannons. Nor do the blessings of liberty and security from invasion come from the domestic loom. But Antietam was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. It came at a terrible cost of life and presaged many more terrible battles. In the aftermath, we see a seemingly inadvertent emblem of hearth, home, family, and rest.
Dutton wove her replica of the Antietam coverlet as a gift to her son’s public school, which was planning a class trip to Washington, D.C. The idea was to raffle it off—and it might well have fetched a good portion of the cost of the trip. But the school emulated General McClellan. It let the opportunity pass. Whether this was due to disdain for “women’s work” or historical blindness I don’t know, but the coverlet returned to Dutton.
This story came to me in a chance conversation, and I was taken with it as a grassroots story of war and peace, with a little hint of how poorly contemporary American education pays attention to the weaving together of the two—sometimes on the family loom. But I’ll let that rest for this occasion. Bonny Dutton is weaver, not a cultural combatant, and I want to honor her sense of history, not raise a battle flag.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.