Civil War anniversary inspires 'Coverlet Casualty' exhibit at St. Vincent College gallery
Even as their handiwork was being tucked onto the beds of wounded Civil War soldiers, the weaver's life in the 1860s was beginning to unravel during the bloody conflict, as showcased in an upcoming exhibit at St. Vincent College.
“You have weavers doing a bunch of different things. ... Some of them began weaving for the troops, some are enlisting in the war, and you have still others who don't want anything to do with it. Some people just pack up with their families and go back to countries they originally came from to avoid conflict,” said Lauren Churilla, director of the Foster and Muriel McCarl Coverlet Gallery in the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College.
The conflict from 1861 to 1865 ushered in an age of industrialization, thus bringing an end to most handmade weaving, Churilla said.
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War was the inspiration for the gallery's latest exhibit, “The Coverlet Casualty.”
St. Vincent College senior Emily Davis worked with Churilla to curate the exhibit, which features pieces from the traveling exhibit, “The Civil War in Pennsylvania,” through the Senator John Heinz History Center affiliate program.
“The idea is, as you're walking around, you can see the story of the industry,” said Davis, who lives in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Four life-size figures — representing an arsenal worker and an abolitionist from Pittsburgh, a Gettysburg nurse and an Erie soldier — are part of the traveling exhibit.
Those pieces will be complemented by artifacts from the Westmoreland County Historical Society, including gowns, uniform accessories and memorabilia from the Rev. Emmeran Bliemel, O.S.B., the only Roman Catholic chaplain to be killed in the Civil War.
Bliemel was ordained at the St. Vincent Abbey and served with Company S, 10th Infantry Regiment in Tennessee, despite Archabbot Boniface Wimmer's successful request to President Abraham Lincoln to exempt monks from service.
“He was arrested twice: the first time for smuggling morphine to the South, and the second time for writing treasonous articles. He was a crazy guy,” Churilla said.
Now buried in Alabama, the chaplain was awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor posthumously in the 1980s.
Only about 10 of the more than 400 coverlets in the collection were created during the Civil War era, Davis said.
The gallery opened in 2004 on the Unity campus as a place to preserve the McCarls' gift of blankets woven on Jacquard looms.
Weavers would use a series of punch cards to create a pattern of the colored wool weft in the natural cotton warp.
Two coverlets in the Civil War exhibit are an exception, with dyed warp, and another is made completely of linen, one of three in the collection, Churilla said.
During the war, however, a supply of cotton was difficult to come by, providing another nail in the coffin for weaving, Churilla said.
Davis said she liked beginning and ending the exhibit with coverlets in patriotic themes.
The gallery features an exhibit curated by a student at least once per year, said Churilla, who lectures in public history at St. Vincent.
“It lets our students have hands-on, firsthand experience with actually creating an exhibit, so they're responsible for picking the artifacts that they want, writing all the label text, helping install,” she said, calling it a “learning laboratory.”
Davis, who is majoring in history and theology with minors in public history and medieval studies, said she saw a student-produced exhibit on one of her first visits to St. Vincent, which persuaded her to study there.
“For me, that was a big reason why I wanted to come to St. Vincent — because they had hands-on opportunities. So I've been looking forward to it,” Davis said.
An opening reception is planned for Friday as is a lecture by Karen Kehoe, professor of history, about Civil War nurses from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 20.
Churilla said Civil War buffs will enjoy the exhibit and can pick up some knowledge about the collection's woven blankets.
“Not everybody who is into the Civil War may have encountered a coverlet, so it's a good way to introduce people to the collection,” she noted.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.