Monday, February 1, 2016

An old shirt and a very young man -- a poignant Civil War story from Alabama

The shirt of Henry W. Reese Jr. (Courtesy T.H. Biederman)

In today’s world of mass production and two-day shipping, a man’s shirt can be easily replaced. Got a stain or rip? Order another online.

The brown-and-white checked garment hanging on a museum wall in Montgomery, Ala., however, was not about efficiency. Rather, it was about love and a statement of pride.

The homespun shirt was custom-made for a tall, skinny teen boy who came from a prosperous family. Untold hours went into picking, washing and carding and spinning the dyed fiber. Then came the arduous tasks of weaving the fabric on a large loom and hand sewing the pieces.

Made for a mother’s first-born child, the shirt featured higher fashion than most – rounded pockets, a French cut and purple and white glass buttons.

“When I first saw it, I said to myself: ‘This was (for) somebody’s darling,’” said Terre Hood Biederman, a weaver and living historian.

That precious boy was Henry Winston Reese Jr., the son of a physician who in the mid-19th century established a plantation on the outskirts of Demopolis, a town of about 7,500 today in west-central Alabama. The 16-year-old in early 1863 decided to enlist in the Confederate army.

Reese shirt and boots (Alabama Archives)

Reese’s garment and a pair of boots and a pouch were given by the family to the Alabama Department of Archives and History in 1978.

The shirt, surrounded by other Civil War items, is on display at in the “Alabama Voices” exhibition of the Museum of Alabama. To the passerby, it may be just a shirt. But this artifact has a story to tell, supplemented by threads of love, hope, passion and, eventually, sorrow.

Winston, as he was called, was fond of music and a natural leader. He likely had the shirt with him at the University of Alabama, where he was a first lieutenant in the cadet corps. Reese and some classmates tried to form a company of sharpshooters and join the Confederate army. But when parents found out, the plan was quashed. Winston and a few others ran off anyway.

Shortly afterward, on Feb. 26, 1863, he wrote a letter from a Rebel camp near Vicksburg, Ms.

Reese had not heard from his parents about his decision to join Company A, 31st Alabama Infantry. He asks the recipient of his correspondence to give a message to his mother.

“I wrote that I was very sorry that I had to leave without their consent, but did not regret the step, & if I was so situated again, would do the same thing again. I wish when you write, you would advise them to forgive me, for it will go very hard with me if they do not. My parents have thought that I could not stand the life of a soldier at all, but so far I have gotten along very well.”

Two days after his 17th birthday, Reese would see his first real test, at the Battle of Champion Hill, also known as Baker’s Creek, in Mississippi.

A homespun patriotic statement

Reese’s father, Henry Winston Reese (Sr.), was a native of Virginia. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1834. He and his wife, Julia, were soon drawn to Demopolis.

Gaineswood, one of  the town's fine homes (Library of Congress)

The town initially was settled by French political exiles who were banished following the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. “From 1820 to 1870, King Cotton was coming into its own as the southern money crop, and the Demopolis area prospered,” the city says on its website.

Newcomers also were drawn from Virginia and the Carolinas by the rich, black soil, said Mary Jones-Fitts, president of the Marengo County History & Archive Museum. Mansions soon popped up around the town and county, with the doctor and his family settling on the edge of Demopolis, in the “beginning of the country.”

Winston Reese was the first of a half dozen children born to the doctor and his wife. The senior Reese had more than 100 slaves, according to the 1850 U.S. Census, and his growing family lived in a Gothic Revival home called Forest Hill.

(Courtesy of T.H. Biederman)

Ryan M. Blocker, a curator in the museum collection of the Alabama archives, said it’s not known whether a slave made the Reese shirt. (A dress in the collection made for a wealthy woman in Tuscaloosa was made by a slave, she said.)

While never formally conserved, “for a shirt of this age it is in good condition,” said Blocker. It would have been worn over underclothing and seen daily use. It has wear in spots, including the underarms.

Blocker and Biederman are not certain what the shirt was made from. While paperwork shows it as wool, sketches since then show it to be cotton.

“The weave of a man’s shirt, especially those meant as outdoor wear (like this one), are typically a coarser weave than what is found in women’s clothing,” said Blocker.

“Terre and I also talked about the cut of the shirt. She reminded me that the French cut shirts are fashion shirts tailored to fit the individual. This cut is individual and uses more fabric than a square cut shirt. The square shirt is boxy and cut on a fold at the shoulders to save fabric. So, the shirt in question is most probably early war.”

Pouch donated by Reese family (Alabama Archives)

Biederman said the Reeses wanted to convey something extra in the shirt’s design and craftsmanship. It could be called a “protest” battle shirt.

"It is in your face, the South can do all by itself. It was a homespun patriotic statement,” said Biederman.

The war of course, had a large impact on Demopolis, with losses to families and the deaths of hundreds of Confederate soldiers treated in area hospitals. In the years since, Jones-Fitts said, farming largely played out, and today’s Demopolis employers include a cement plant and paper company.

“We have a historic district that shows like it used to be in the day,” Jones-Fitts told the Picket. “There are a lot of antebellum homes and a lot of brick buildings that housed carriage houses.”

‘I can hold my head up among many’

Winston Reese was popular among his classmates at the University of Alabama, which increasingly came under the clouds of war. By early 1863, he and others had hatched the idea of forming a company. After their plan fell through, eight cadets headed for Mississippi anyway.

In his letter to a “Mrs. Tuomey,” Reese wrote of arriving in Vicksburg while the Yankees were shelling the vital river city.

“We thought that we had arrived too late in time to take a hand in the fight, which to fresh boys like ourselves, seemed imminent, but after a few hours firing, their boat was run off by our guns,” he said.

(Reese’s transcribed letter is among three about him in the collection of University Libraries at the University of Alabama).

The 31st Alabama, which later in the war fought in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina before its surrender in April 1865 in North Carolina, was formed with men from Cherokee and Talladega counties, among others – but not Marengo. It’s not known how or where the Alabama cadets joined their ranks. Reese makes mention of Col. Daniel Hundley, who led the regiment along with Lt. Col. Thomas Arrington.


The young soldier also cites the capture of the Federal ironclad riverboat gunboat USS Indianola (above) on Feb. 24, 1863.

And he writes achingly of seeking his parents’ approval of his decision to join up. “I do not know what they will do about my leaving.”

But the teen ends the letter with a feeling of pride.

“I now feel that I am doing my duty, & can hold my head up among any. I think that the ladies about Tuskaloosa (sic), instead of encouraging us, as they did, in staying there, ought to have driven us off by their scorn & contempt. I know that you and all my friends think more of me now, or will for joining the army, than if I had stayed out of the war.”

The 31st Alabama suffered heavily at Port Gibson and the May 16, 1863, battle at Champion Hill, considered the bloodiest action of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. It ended in a decisive Union victory, leading to the Confederates being boxed in at Vicksburg, where the 31st was among surrendering units in early July.

University of Alabama classmate and friend William Garrard, in 1905, wrote to Reese’s younger brother from his law office in Savannah, Ga.

(Wanda Stewart, volunteer for Find A Grave.)

“In that action your brother Winston, charging with all the cadet crowd at the head of the regiment, was shot down and died from the wound. I never saw him after the fight, as we were marched off immediately, and retreated to Vicksburg, after fighting (the) battle of Baker’s Creek.”

Winston Reese lingered for several weeks, dying on July 23. A book about Hundley and the regiment says the teen died in Demopolis. He and other family members are buried at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Prairieville, east of Demopolis.

Iowa troops captured the 31st Alabama’s flag at Baker’s Creek. It stayed in Iowa until 2012, when it went on loan to Confederate Memorial Park in Mountain Creek, Ala. It was recently returned to the State Historical Society of Iowa museum in Des Moines.

Bill Rambo, site director at Confederate Memorial Park, wrote in an email: “It's an outstanding flag. I love the simple but profound statement in the canton: ‘God And Our Native Land.’ Henry Winston Reese Jr. was mortally wounded defending that flag in a bloody fight.”

(Image courtesy of the State Historical Museum of Iowa, Des Moines)

It’s not believed that the young private was wearing the checked shirt in the battle.

For his part, Garrard wrote his memories of Reese were “both pleasant and sad.”

After he was paroled from Vicksburg  and was at Demopolis in autumn 1863, Garrard visited his friend’s home.

“It became known to me that possibly the family blamed me somewhat in leading off from the University some of the cadets, including your brother, and therefore I wanted to put myself right with your family. I told your parents that such was not the fact, but that Winston left of his own accord, from a high sense of duty, just like I did, and just like the others of our crowd did.”

‘I dreamed that he would come home again’

Garrard wrote his letter to Henry Fontaine Reese, believed to be the youngest of the family. He was born only months after his oldest sibling fell in battle.

“Certainly your birth during the year of his death, must have been considered by your parents as a Godsend,” Garrard wrote.

Patrick Henry (LOC)
Why the same first name? H.F. said the name came from a famous patriot ancestor, Patrick Henry of Virginia. (Winston derived from William Winston, Patrick Henry’s uncle.)

Julia Reese, the boys’ mother, died in September 1866 and their father passed away in 1898.

By then, Henry Fontaine Reese was living in Selma and was involved in politics. He was a member of the Alabama Senate for many years. (He apparently favored a poll tax to keep African-Americans from voting.)

In a letter written in about 1910, also in the University of Alabama collection, the younger Reese – who had Winston’s violin -- said in the intervening years he had spoken with Winston’s classmates, other acquaintances and former family slaves. He had learned that Winston was of “strong character,” a good physique and had a pleasing personality.

“Strange to say that when I was a young child, I dreamed about him and I dreamed that he would come home again.”

A true labor of love – and time

His fancy shirt, the boots and the pouch are the only visible symbols of Winston Reese’s short life. The Picket was unable to find a photograph of him.

While living historians and those steeped in 19th century clothing might be most interested in the design and construction of the shirt --- the love and labor that went into it might speak to a broader audience.

Biederman says to full understand what went into the shirt, you have to understand the context.

(Courtesy of T.H. Biederman)

She mentioned “This Cruel War: The Civil War Letters of Grant and Malinda Taylor,” a couple who lived in Pickens County, Ala. In October 1863, Malinda stated, “I have put the children’s winter clothes on the loom today.”

“My heart breaks at this statement,” Biederman said. “It’s October. She has a houseful of little children, including a new baby conceived during an ill-advised trip down to the Dog River where Grant was stationed. “If first frost has not fallen, it is days way. And she has just started weaving winter clothes. She has a farm, relies on hired help, and has both sets of elderly parents to care for. What did it take for her to put the children’s winter clothes on the loom today?”

Without distraction and at her fittest as a weaver, Biederman says she can personally weave close to a yard an hour of shirting weight cloth.

“It’s an extremely physical job -- I will drop several pounds a day in liquid weight despite drinking large amounts of water when weaving. I cannot keep up that steady pace for more than a couple of days at a time.”

A weaver would have made more than one thing at a time, not wanting to waste hand-spun yarns.

The hours add up. The rule of thumb says seven hours of fiber prep and dying are needed for every hour of spinning. And about seven hours of hand spinning are required for every hour of weaving. 

“How long did it take to weave the Reese shirt?” Biederman asked. “All the time you have.”  

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