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Three small scraps of cloth on display at the New-York Historical Society’s Civil War textile exhibit, “Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War,” (P. 52), illustrate the complexity of American slavery and race relations just before the war. The fabric is a blend of cotton and wool, sometimes called “Jeans” or “Negro Cloth,” which was manufactured for use in slave clothing. The material was not woven below the Mason-Dixon Line, but at the Peace Dale Manufactoring Company in Rhode Island, a state known for religious and racial tolerance in the antebellum era. It gets even more convoluted. Rowland G. Hazard, a part owner of the mill, was a Quaker-educated abolitionist who donated money on at least one occasion to defray the legal costs of black men who had been wrongly accused of being escaped slaves. And free blacks were part of Peace Dale’s work force. So Southern slaves picked the cotton that was sent to Rhode Island, where an abolitionist owner and his African-American workers wove it with Northern wool into fabric that was sold to plantation owners to clothe their slaves. When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (P. 28), her influential 1850s novel about slavery, she made the book’s villain, Simon Legree, a transplanted Northerner. Her point was that the Peculiar Institution corrupted everyone that it touched, not just Southerners, and was a stain on the whole country. Isn’t that right, Rowland Hazard?


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.