The Sewing Machine, The Civil War and The Confederate Flag

Posted by Susan Liane, The Smuggler's Daughter on 7/29/2015 to Commentary
Many of us use a sewing machine only a bit less than our personal computers or tablets. If you are anything like me, you hate to be away from your sewing machine for any length of time. But as important as a sewing machine is in our lives, few of us are aware of the important role the sewing machine played in the outcome of the Civil War, a critical moment in American history. 

A few weeks ago I was in the San Francisco Bay Area and riding a BART train into the city when I glanced over and noticed what the woman next to me was reading. It turned out to be a copy of her daughter’s dissertation entitled "Secret Weapon of the Union: the Sewing Machine and Civil War America."  

Amy Breakwell, the above-mentioned daughter and historian, earned her History PhD by examining the use and popularization of sewing machines during the Civil War. Breakwell began her sewing machine research as an undergraduate at Stanford University, continued it as her dissertation project, and after finishing her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2012, is now turning it into a book.  

In a phone conversation, Breakwell proposed it would be an overstatement to suggest that the sewing machine won the war for the Union, but declared it was one important tool that gave the Union an advantage in the war. How so, you ask? To begin with, there were 74 manufacturers of sewing machines in Northern territory and none in the Confederate States. Hand-sewing was still prominent but Breakwell found that 38% of the archived Union goods she examined were at least partially machine sewed. That is 19 times more than the 2% of Confederate archived items she found to be machine sewed. 

Breakwell’s research also uncovered advertisements requesting women who owned their own sewing machines to produce clothing and other sewn goods for the Union Army. Advertisements offered $6 to $12 per week, an excellent wage at that time and more evidence that machine sewn goods were valued. In comparison, a military nurse only earned $12 per month. 

Amy Breakwell proposes that the sewing machine allowed the Union to clothe and equip its soldiers in a significantly more efficient manner than the Confederacy, and that as a result sewing machines became far more accepted and popular during the Civil War. You can read more of her excellent historical research in an article that can be downloaded from 

A remnant of the Civil War, the Confederate flag has made a lot of news lately. I was surprised to learn years ago that the confederate flag is still commonly displayed all over the southern states that once comprised the Confederacy. I recall being shocked to see it displayed when I visited North Carolina shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on our country. To display an alternative flag seemed unpatriotic and disrespectful at that moment in American history. 

In the popular movie “Lincoln” there was a scene in which President Lincoln tells General Grant to let the leaders of the Confederacy slip out of the country without capture at the end of the war. He said that there had been enough killing. Indeed, the Union was preserved and slavery was ended after a very bloody four years. But the historical fact is that the Confederate leaders did not leave the country nor were they executed or imprisoned for life. In fact, nearly all of them went on to lead prosperous lives in prominent positions, utterly unpunished for outright treason. Today this seems a stark contrast to the way almost every country on earth, including the United States, will treat people who take up arms against their own homeland. 

The Confederate leaders lost the actual war but seem to have won an ongoing PR battle of the south about the war and the Confederate flag. The sheer ridiculousness of the assertion that this flag is neither a symbol of racism nor slavery is enough to prove something that most PR professionals (myself included) know for sure - that if you repeat something often enough, even something blatantly false, it can become true in the minds of the people who say it and hear it. And this is the most regrettable aspect of the professional communications field that I have ever known. 

The original Confederate flag was sewn by society sisters Hetty and Jennie Cary, and their Richmond cousin, Constance Cary, perhaps as a misguided expression of Southern pride. During the Civil War, these three women became something of celebrity belles in the South and it is worth noting that they lived on the privilege and wealth generated by the forced labor of the African American slaves. Not such an honorable sewing project after all. 

Last month it took a young woman to climb a flagpole in front of the South Carolina Statehouse on a Saturday morning to remove the Confederate battle flag. "We removed the flag today because we can't wait any longer,” Bree Newsome said. “We can't continue like this another day. It's time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”

Believe it or not, the sewing community was not silent on this chapter of American history either. OonaBalloona from Kalkatroona, a much-loved sewing blogger posted, “Where will we be fifty years from now? Hopefully shaking our heads bemusedly at how it took us so long to get to this next step. Hopefully in a country without pieces of cloth that remind us of how we are divided, rather than how we are human, and so very much alike.” Perhaps in 50 years it will also be common knowledge among sewistas that women used sewing machines to successfully support the Union cause.
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Anna Date 7/29/2015
Very interesting info. I certainly was not aware of the sewing machine's place in Civil War history, and it looks like a bit of research has gone into this. Thanks for sharing.
Tanya Date 7/29/2015
Thanks for this enlightening post! Women's sewing skills have put food on many a table around the world. But can you imagine 74 sewing machine manufacturers in our country today?? Oh, the times, they are a changin'. Not a mile from my Southern Oregon home flies a Confederate flag on private property, albeit on a heavily trafficked drive. I always wondered how the neighbors felt about it, though there is nothing they can do but try to enjoy its beautiful, bold colors. In these parts I believe it has significance to those who subscribe to the State of Jefferson movement, which also advocates for secession. and whose logo is a double X, likely based on the Confederate X. In his address to the African Union a few days ago, in reference to some African countries' tradition of female genital mutilation and to the tradition of some in our country of flying the Confederate flag, President Obama reminded the delegates that just because something is tradition doesn't mean it has anything good to offer our society in the present. Some traditions are just "bad" and need to be left in the past in order to advance as a society. Amen to that!
Miller Fulks Date 2/16/2016
There are of course TWO sides to every story. As one "Confederate" General stated the side which wins gets to Write the History. It is unfortunate that YOU have been LIED to more than I have. I am a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, I hold the Southern Flag in Great Respect & I AM NOT A RACIST. The south were no more guilty of Treason than was the colonies when they rebelled against Great Britain. feeling the way you do you should only Honor the Union Jack, certainly not that US flag which Revolted against her Mother Country. Just to set the record straight neither the colonies nor the South took up arms against their country, Neither tried to take over their "Parent" country, both simply tried to peacefully remove themselves from it. England tried to forcefully prevent the birth of a new nation as did the USA. The colonies defended their right to form a new country as did the South. Only difference was the Colonies won We Lost. I will continue to hold my Ancestors who fought for the confederacy as well as the flag they fought under in High Esteem. I will also note that IF Slavery had been the "ONLY ISSUE" between the two regions, there would have been "NO WAR".
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