Thursday, May 2, 2024

Anglo-Saxon Quilts #2: The Mexican War

Baltimore, St. Louis Art Museum Collection
Quilt dated 1848, the year the United States & Mexico signed
 a treaty to formalize annexation of southwestern
 land from Texas to California.

George Washington watching over a quilting
bee revival during the Civil War.

 How indeed did quilts become propaganda?

Trying to read symbolism into needlework created almost 200 years ago is probably unwise but some of the messages we see in quilts from the 1840s and '50s do seem to remember the national argument on America's "Manifest Destiny" and English genetic superiority that resulted in aggression and war.

Most familiar may be what we call a Lone Star, the symbol of the Texas Republic, a name that is found as early as 1853 when a Louisville, Kentucky fair described a Logan County "Lone Star Quilt" as quite an attraction (probably a silk version made by Mrs. John First of Russellville.)

More obviously symbolic is this cotton version:

Lone Star quilt with a Mexican War battle scene chintz
International Quilt Museum, 
Byron & Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection

The print features General Zachary Taylor (some think it's Winfield Scott) at the Battle of Buena Vista. Victory in Mexico qualified them both to be nominated for President in future elections. (Scott did not win.)

One of several Mexican War battle prints, the fabric came in several colorways.

Two other victory celebrations

Taylor or Scott? 
Taylor the elder was born in 1784; Scott in 1786, both in their late fifties during the war.

Seen at a Virginia Quilt Museum show

Quilt associated with Sarah Langford, Colonial Williamsburg
Representation of Samuel Ringgold's monument.

Major Samuel Ringgold (1800-1846) 

Wars result in casualties who may become heroes in the popular mind. Major Samuel Ringgold of Hagerstown, Maryland was killed in May, 1846 at the Battle of Palo Alto.

 Lt. Colonel William H. Watson (1808-1846)

A few months later another Baltimore soldier William H. Watson died.

Baltimore album block from Old Hope Antiques

International Quilt Museum
 Inscribed in "Memory of Major Ringgold"

Quilt associated with Samuel Williams in collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Ringgold's memorial blocks survive in more Baltimore quilts than Watson's (I have only two Watson memorials in the files.) Ringgold was buried in Mexico but in December, 1846 his remains were disinterred and brought home in a ceremony of national mourning.

Washingtonians could view the body for a day in December.
And then a parade in Baltimore where the viewing lasted a few days.
"Thousands of both sexes [dropped] a sympathizing tear over the bier."

December 23, 1846

International Quilt Museum

We may assume this repeated image represents Ringgold's final resting spot but no monument to him was built at the time.

He's remembered with a flat stone at Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery.

Ringgold and Watson are remembered in early versions of Maryland's state song:

“With Ringgold’s spirit for the fray,/With Watson’s blood at Monterey . . ./Maryland! My Maryland!” 

UPDATE: An anonymous and knowledgeable correspondent writes me:

"The Mexican War hero monuments were temporary structures in the open space of the Baltimore Merchants Exchange. The rifles were leaned up against the "fence" around the structures with the names [to keep] the public at a distance...."

And sure enough here is a description of Ringgold's temporary memorial! Baltimore Sun, December 18, 1846.
A cenotaph 26 feet tall.

Shelburne Museum Collection

13,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors died in the Mexican War. There must have been a cause for all that sacrifice. More on Manifest Destiny in the next post.


  1. Terrific series of posts. My great grandfather fought in the Mexican war. Looking for a good book on it if you have any recommendations.

  2. Nothing general comes to mind. I've learned about it by reading individual biographies of the men who were lauded as heroes.

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