See Civil War Uniforms in the Conservation Process in a Live Webcast

By Paige Myers
Textile Conservator, North Carolina Museum of History

The bloodied coat of  Lt. Col. Thomas Hart Ruffin has a storied history. A lawyer and U.S. Congressman from Franklin County, North Carolina, Ruffin commanded Company H of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry until he was promoted to the ranks of major and lieutenant colonel in quick succession in the summer of 1863. Around that same time, the coat that he would ultimately perish in was made. It became bloodied when he died during a skirmish at Auburn’s Mill in Virginia. The coat appears so splattered because Ruffin fell from his horse and was taken to the military hospital with a minié ball in his forehead.

CONFEDERATE UNIFORM COAT; OWNED BY  THOMAS RUFFIN. RUFFIN (1820-1863) A LAWYER AND JOHNSTON COUNTY PLANTER, COMMANDED COMPANY H, 1ST NC CAVALRY UNTIL PROMOTED TO MAJOR ON JUNE 29, 1863. PROMOTED AGAIN TO LT. COLONEL ON JULY 23, 1863, HE WAS MORTALLY WOUNDED ON OCTOBER 15, 1863 AT AUBURN'S MILL, VIRGINIA. THIS COAT WAS LIKELY MADE BETWEEN JULY AND OCTOBER 1863.

The frock coat of Lt. Col. Thomas Ruffin will be one of the items shown in the webcast.

The coat poses some unique challenges for me as a conservator at the North Carolina Museum of History. As a caretaker of the past, I seek to prevent further damage to the textiles in my care, even as the ravages of war are still evident.

One dilemma that conservators have to take into consideration is what constitutes original damage to an object and what is a later period repair or early conservation work. This is where the conservator consults with a curator to decide what the appropriate treatment should be. In general, what is done must be able to be undone. Should organic stains be removed or by this act is the conservator actually taking away part of history?

Holes should be stabilized, but the bullet holes occurred during the original wearer’s lifetime. Even later damage such as tears and stains that occurred during the later veteran reunions or wear by subsequent family members must be taken into account. All of these factors add to the history of an object and should be preserved accordingly. Most conservators learn during their training that less is more. Sometimes the best treatment for an object is to do nothing.

During a live webcast from the museum on September 10, you can get a behind the scenes look at my working textile conservation lab and see some of the materials I use to conserve Civil War uniforms.

Some of the highlights of the program will include the following:

  • A discussion of treatment for the blood-stained frock coat worn by Lt. Col. Thomas H. Ruffin
  • A look at the materials and techniques used for conserving the moth eaten frock coat of Col. Dennis D. Ferebee of Camden county
  • Discussion on the various preventative care treatments that conservators like me use to preserve fabrics and uniforms
  • The chance to ask me questions about my work and textiles in the museum’s collection via email and live chat

The webcast will be held on Tuesday, September 10 from 6 to 7 p.m. An Internet connection is all that is required to participate. To register, simply fill out the form at http://www.ncdcr.gov/CivilWarTextiles.

This program is the first in a series organized by the Connecting to Collections Project (C2C) of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, in cooperation with the North Carolina Museum of History. Future programs will examine the conservation of flags and garments from civilian life during the Civil War. The entire series is made possible thanks to a federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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