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Crawford Long Museum displays clothing, artifacts from Civil War era

POSTED: May 27, 2012 1:30 a.m.

It is likely Mary Jane Merk Patrick wiped away a few tears as she said goodbye to her husband.

Even in her sadness, the 27-year-old bride probably felt a bit of pride knowing that Miles Jefferson Patrick was one of the first native sons to leave Jefferson as a volunteer to fight in the Civil War.

Who knows what tender words were exchanged between the two or what displays of affection were shared? This generation can only speculate that he may have placed a loving hand on her pregnant belly before he walked away.

What they said and did is fodder for the imagination, but one thing is known: The 28-year-old soldier never made it back home. He died in 1862 in Yorktown, Va., leaving Merk Patrick, who’d given birth to his five children, a widow.

As was customary in the antebellum south, Merk Patrick donned "widow’s weeds" for several years after her husband’s death. The "weeds" were the all-black attire worn by widows following the death of their husbands.

One of her mourning outfits is on display at the Crawford W. Long Museum in Jefferson as a part of "The Threads of the Civil War" exhibit.

"Women didn’t work much back then, so after her husband died, she and her children lived with various family members," said Ceil Jarrett, who is their great-great-granddaughter.

"They moved around from family to family. I think that’s pretty pitiful."

Jarrett served as a consultant for the project, which will run through Oct. 31 at the museum located at
28 College St. in Jefferson.

"Women were expected to be in mourning for two or three years," Jarrett said.

"(Merk Patrick) stayed in widow’s weeds for many years. For one thing, fabric supplies were cut off in the South during the war, so clothing wasn’t easy to come by anyway.

"If people had a lot of money, they’d have a set of widow’s weeds and then their regular clothes. But a lot of people didn’t have much money, so they’d just dye their clothes black. Once you dyed them, you ultimately had widow’s weeds no matter what, since you couldn’t dye them back."

According to Jarrett, male mourners only had to wear a black armband, if they so desired, for a few months after their spouses died.

Traditional antebellum mourning attire for women coincided with the period’s protocol for the different stages of grief.

"The fact that this set has decorations on it tells me that (Merk Patrick) probably wore it during one of the later stages of grief," Jarrett said.

"When you were in deep mourning, you weren’t allowed to have any decorations on your clothes. Everything was plain black from head to toe. As you started coming out of mourning, you could add some color, like maybe a little deep purple."

Even despite losing her husband and her family’s breadwinner, Merk Patrick proved to be a resilient woman.

"She was still around when my mother (Ann Jarrett) was a girl. My mother said she was one of the sweetest, happiest people that she knew," Jarrett said.

"She remembers that she was always smiling and happy. I don’t know how, though, considering all that she’d been through."

Though Jarrett isn’t sure how Merk Patrick maintained her cheerful demeanor, she and other history enthusiasts are able to know for sure how she dressed 150 years ago, thanks to Ann Jarrett’s forward thinking.

"My very wonderful mother has always been into genealogy. She kept a lot of things," Jarrett said.

Like the former wearer, the clothing and jewelry have proven to be resilient over the last century and a half, despite being stored somewhat randomly.

"We found things in boxes under beds, but they were all in great shape," Jarrett said.

"The widow’s weeds hung in my closet for as long as I can remember, but we thought the museum would be a better place for them."

Vicki Starnes, the museum’s manager, also can’t believe how well the attire has held up over the years.

"They’re really in incredible shape," Starnes said. "I can’t believe they aren’t rotten, considering they were worn more than 100 years ago."

The exhibit also contains donated pieces from Civil War re-enactor Diane Fuller and other items loaned from Jackson County residents.

There are antebellum shoes, fashion magazines and even underwear. The exhibit also contains a unique pair of Civil War era earrings — made of hair.

"When people died, they would make jewelry out of their hair," Jarrett said.

Another norm during that era was to place a cemetery marker in memory of fallen soldiers, since their bodies were often buried wherever they died. There’s a Confederate marker in Woodbine Cemetery in Jefferson for Patrick, in the same lot where his wife was buried in 1916.

Just as most people tend to focus on fallen soldiers on Memorial Day and not the families they left behind, the same is true when many people conjure images of a traditional Civil War clothing exhibit, Starnes says.

"We wanted to do something different with this exhibit," Starnes said. "Instead of military type clothing and uniforms, we wanted something that helped to paint a picture of the sacrifices that were being made on the homefront."

 


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