Blow Your Nose Into History: Wear the Same Handkerchiefs Sported by Civil War Soldiers
In his sprawling house on the outskirts of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Chris Utley shows me his second-floor office—the nerve center of his business for 19th- century reproduction clothing. Atop a bookcase rest 150-plus year-old boots and shoes. To our left stands a display of original U.S. Christian Commission ephemera. To our right, in a closet, hang some of the repro clothing Utley sells.
But I’m not here for the old-style vests and overshirts or the denim and linen jackets. I’m here to learn about handkerchiefs. Utley, a 47-year-old healthcare investigator, is the only person I know who collects original hankies from the Civil War. Of the 14 in his collection, seven belonged to identified soldiers.
For nearly a decade, Utley has reproduced and sold copies of original Civil War hankies—a business that spawned his reproduction clothing business called South Union Mills.
The war has enthralled Utley since he first read Bruce Catton’s books as a kid. As he grew older, the Kentucky native caught the reenacting bug. In 1998, Utley and hundreds of his reenacting pards—including Robert Lee Hodge of Confederates in the Attic fame—re-created Stonewall Jackson’s famous Flank March on the very ground where the general’s soldiers advanced at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863.
Utley owns roughly 20 books on “Old Jack,” whom he admires for his devout Christian beliefs. In the back yard of his 10-acre spread, Utley raises chickens, just as Jackson did at his farm outside Lexington, Va., when he served as a professor at Virginia Military Institute.
“A lot of the ways he led his life, I lead mine,” says Utley, a devout Christian himself.
In 2013, the idea to reproduce and sell Civil War handkerchiefs came to Utley while he was taking a lunch break at his cubicle at work.
“What is something I can do that nobody else can do?” the former patrol officer thought. “I want to find a niche that’s mine.”
At the time, Utley didn’t know anything about textiles and little about Civil War-era handkerchiefs. Reenactors used handkerchiefs as an added touch of authenticity for their uniforms. But no one, as far as Utley could tell, made versions that were true to the period.
“The big thing for me is I wanted to be as authentic as possible,” he says.
Some of Utley’s handkerchief stock. The originals he copies were once used by both Union and Confederate soldiers. Simple items of comfort that spoke of home.
In 2014, Utley bought his first original Civil War handkerchief from a Virginia antiques/relics dealer. The 18- by 16-inch cotton hanky belonged to Lieutenant S. Millet Thompson of the 13th New Hampshire. On the handkerchief —which features black, red, and tan patterns—the officer had stenciled his name and regiment. Thompson survived the war, including a wound at the siege of Petersburg. He died in 1911.
Over the years, Utley purchased other handkerchiefs on eBay and from Civil War dealers from $500 to $1,000. In an online auction, Utley spotted a handkerchief carried by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield at Gettysburg, but he dropped out of the bidding when it soared to several thousand dollars.
All Utley’s originals belonged to U.S. Army soldiers except for one. When new, most featured vibrant colors, now dulled by time. Some have intricate patterns. All are made of either cotton or silk. A soldier paid about $1.50 for a silk hanky, less for cotton. Utley’s reproductions sell for $15 to $30 apiece.
One of Utley’s originals was carried by Lincoln Ripley Stone, a surgeon in the 54th Massachusetts, the most famous Black regiment of the war. The Harvard Medical School graduate served with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was killed in the 54th Massachusetts’ epic night attack at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.
Corporal Cyrus Dennis of the 1st Maryland “Potomac Home Brigade” Cavalry (U.S.) carried another. Utley owns his wartime Bible, too. Another belonged to Private Reuben Sweet of the 5th Wisconsin, who served under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman during his March to the Sea.
The only non-soldier handkerchief in Utley’s collection was carried by a Philadelphia man named George Johnson, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves used the network of clandestine routes and safe houses to escape to free states and freedom.
The first original soldier handkerchief Utley re-created for sale came from the collection of an Idaho doctor. That hanky is named the “Galloway” after the collector’s surname.
For a nominal fee, Utley has purchased the reproduction rights of other soldier handkerchiefs from the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va.; the Adams County (Pa.) Historical Society in Gettysburg; the Ohio Historical Society; the Oshkosh (Wis.) Public Museum, and elsewhere.
After receiving photos of handkerchiefs from Utley, a designer in Europe re- creates the hankies in digital form in their original, striking colors.
“My aim was to make them look like new,” Utley says.
An overseas mill makes the cotton or silk handkerchiefs for Utley, who sells them on his website and at Civil War shows. They’re also available at the Chickamauga battlefield in Georgia and at two outlets in Gettysburg.
Besides living historians, Utley says the handkerchiefs are popular with attorneys and cowboy action shooters who participate in Old West target competitions.
Hollywood likes Utley’s hankies and reproduction clothing, too. He has spotted his goods in movies such as The Free State of Jones , Nightmare Alley , and Jane Got a Gun.
“It’s gotten to be so common that I no longer make a mental note of it,” he says.
In a display case on a bottom shelf in the nerve center, I stare at one of Utley’s original handkerchiefs—probably his favorite, he tells me. “Norman Hastings,” reads the name stenciled on the handkerchief in neat, block letters. “Co. C 45th Reg. Mass. V.”
In mid-September 1862, the 29-year-old married farmer enlisted as a private in the 45th Massachusetts, a nine-month regiment. On November 5, 1862, his regiment departed from Boston on the steamship Mississippi , bound for North Carolina to reinforce U.S. Army occupation forces.
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In North Carolina, 45th Massachusetts soldiers suffered from yellow fever, typhoid, and dysentery. As the weather turned brutally hot—a “fiery furnace,” a 45th Massachusetts veteran recalled—the already debilitating conditions turned worse.
“The sickness increased daily, and some poor fellows passed on to their resting-place above, when almost in reach of that earthly home towards which their thoughts and dreams had so long been directed,” a regimental historian wrote.
On June 24, 1863, Hastings and his bedraggled 45th Massachusetts comrades jammed aboard the steamer S.R. Spaulding , bound for Boston and their families.
While Norman Hastings’ handkerchief survived the war (see image at top), he did not. Disease killed him in 1863 while he was returning home.
“Forlorn and weary,” an observer described the soldiers.
On the journey from Fort Monroe, a stop in Virginia en route to Massachusetts, Hastings and another 45th Massachusetts man died from disease, probably dysentery. They were only several days’ travel from home.
“Their bodies will be forwarded to their friends,” a contemporaneous newspaper account noted. On Hastings’ “Casualty Sheet,” a clerk wrote: “Effects sent [to] wife.” Hastings’ cotton handkerchief probably was among them.
On the shelf near the Hastings hanky, another display case catches my eye. It contains two handkerchiefs—one plain white with a pattern along the edges and another featuring a maroon design—as well as a small tobacco box and an old metal chain, perhaps for a watch.
The relics belonged to Ira Lindsay, a 38-year-old machinist and shoemaker from Worcester, Mass. In 1857, he married a woman named Mary Estabrook, who bore him three children: Ellen, Kate, and Joseph Jr. On March 17, 1864, their father enlisted in the 25th Massachusetts as a private.
In early June 1864, Lindsay and his comrades found themselves at Cold Harbor, a dusty hamlet 10 miles northeast of Richmond. On June 3, in Ulysses Grant’s infamous, poorly coordinated charge, the 25th Massachusetts was among the Army of the Potomac regiments cut to pieces.
“[Our] lines were broken [and] the flying iron crushed bones like glass, and men and officers seemed to be staggered,” a 25th Massachusetts soldier recalled.
In the assault, Lindsay and 74 other soldiers in his regiment suffered mortal wounds. He may have bled on the chain in the display case. An old tag with it reads: “Blood was never washed off” and “Chain worn by father in the army.”
I wonder about those handkerchiefs.
Did Lindsay use them to wipe away tears after he received a letter from his wife, Mary?
Did he wrap one of them around a tintype of his children? Joseph Jr. was only nine months old when he lost his father.
Did Lindsay or someone else use them to stanch his wounds as he lay dying at Cold Harbor?
Who sent the relics home to Lindsay’s family?
I ask Utley if he visits his handkerchiefs late at night, as I probably would, perhaps to commune with the spirit of their owners.
“I think about what these have seen and whose pockets they were in,” he tells me. Then he pauses.
“Sometimes,” he says, “it just seems surreal that I own them.”
John Banks, author of two Civil War books, has another one coming in late- spring 2023. Check out A Civil War Road Trip of a Lifetime (Gettysburg Publishing). Banks’ home base is Nashville, Tenn.