BY SANDRA DALLAS
Alice Bullock is a young newlywed whose husband, Charlie, has just joined the Union Army, leaving her on his Iowa farm with only his formidable mother for company. Alice writes lively letters to her sister filled with accounts of local quilting bees, the rigors of farm life, and the customs of small-town America. But no town is too small for intrigue and treachery, and when Alice finds herself accused of murder, she discovers her own hidden strengths. Rich in details of quilting, Civil War-era America, and the realities of a woman’s life in the nineteenth century, Alice’s Tulips is Sandra Dallas at her best.
“Witty and engaging…The details of Civil War life are richly presented, and the characters who people Alice’s letters are relayed with charm.”
Poking through a consignment shop in Denver in the mid-1990s, I found a wonderful Civil War-era Friendship Quilt with names so wonderful that I wanted to use them for characters in a novel. Shortly afterward, I came across the mention of a quilt pattern for Alice’s Tulips, which I thought would make a fine title. I knew I wanted to write a book that included quilt lore, and Diane Mott Davidson, the best-selling culinary mystery writer, suggested I write a book of letters. With all those elements, I went in search of a plot and came up with Alice’s Tulips. At first, I wasn’t sure I had the background to write a book set during the Civil War. Then I realized that Alice’s Tulips is not about battles and troop movements but about women left behind during wartime and the bonds they forge with each other.
AN EXCERPT FROM
December 3, 1862
Dearest Sister Lizzie,
Are you surprised to hear that Charlie has gone for a soldier? You knew he would do it, I told you so, but he left sooner than we ever expected. Now I am shut up with his mother on Bramble Farm, and she is no better for conversation than prune whip. If I didn’t have you to write to, I think I should die. I have no close friend at Slatyfork, and you know I can’t write my true thoughts to Mama or to most friends back home in Fort Madison—not after the way they passed it around why I married in haste and young, being yet sixteen, although Charlie was twenty-one. By now they know they were wrong, but I still do not think kindly of them. Me and Charlie never did anything wrong until we got married, although, Lordy, I was tempted. The day I walked into that dry-goods store in Fort Madison and saw him the first time, I knew he was my life’s companion, and he felt likewise. I don’t know why Mama and Papa were so set against it. After all, they approved of you marrying James when you were still fifteen, and moving off to Galena. I guess they believed James had a future but that Charlie would always be a clerk. Or maybe, me and you being the oldest and the only girls, Mama wanted me to stay at home to care for the six little boys. Well, I don’t care about any of them as much as I do you, Lizzie. Me and you were always as close as two apples on a stem, and I know I can write you frank, without you giving me what for.
My Charlie is a gay little soldier, and a tiger to fight the Johnny Rebs. Why, he is as full of fight as any swill tub, though he himself took the pledge so is dry as the ash heap. (We’ll see about that after he is in the army awhile, however, for Charlie likes his good times.) They had better watch out, those Secesh. Charlie won’t have a fear for his safety. He worries that the war will be over before he can get himself some scalps. Oh, I wish I could be a soldier, too, and shoot the Southern fire-eaters and be the one to hand old Jeff Davis higher than Haman. But no, I must be left behind with Charlie’s mother on a farm. I wish Charlie had not gone, but to tell him to stay in Slatyfork and not enlist, well, I might as easy try to cut the morning mist with scissors.
The folks here gave our boys a first-rate send-off. This is the biggest regiment raised in the vicinity, and the town did the boys proud. Charlie and the other recruits marched off grand. People drove in from farms and ran from the shops and stood in the road bareheaded, shouting hurrahs as the soldier boys marched smartly along. The church bells rang, and a brass band led the parade, blasting out the “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Little children threw flowers, ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and gents who’d climbed on top of the bandstand in the square cried out, “Union forever!”
Then marched the Wolverine Rangers – for that is what they have called themselves – eighty-six fine soldiers who shook the earth with their thundering footsteps. Oh, it was a fine time, with only a few scowls on the faces of traitorous copperheads. Here along the Missouri border, I am sorry to say, copperheads are as thick as princes in Germany. One of them called out, “Ho for old Jeff Davis,” and a group of boys thumped him. Myself, I don’t care so much about freeing the slaves, nor does Charlie, but we both say the Union must be preserved.
It’s my guess that Uncle Abe has used up all the single boys, and now he’s asking the family men like Charlie (more of that presently) to sign up. Most are joining now to get their hundred-dollar bonuses, instead of waiting to be called up by the government, in which case, they would not get a plug nickel. Some call it “greenback patriotism,” but I say it’s little enough to pay a wife for being left behind to work Bramble Farm, and a hard-scrabble farm at that. This was the last place made when the world was created, and the material ran out.
Charlie says he will give all but ten dollars of his bonus to Mother Bullock for the farm, which doesn’t set well with me. “Charlie, which one is your wife?” I asks. “Well,” say he, “I don’t want you to worry about any creditors, so I’ll give it to the old lady.” He’ll keep five dollars for himself and will make me a presentment of the other five. Since it’s as good as in my pocket, I spent a dollar of it at the mercantile for a hat with red, white, and blue streamers, which I wore to the parade. Mother Bullock did not approve of the purchase and scolded, saying that if Charlie doesn’t come back, I will have to wear black bonnets for the rest of my life, and who would give me back my dollar?
“I would wear black for only a year at most, for there are others to take Charlie’s place,” I reply, with a wink at Charlie. He laughed, but Mother Bullock scowled. She spent a nickel on a flag to wave at the parade, which is a bigger waste of money, for I can wear the bonnet ever so often (if Charlie doesn’t get killed, that is, and I believe the bullet has not been molded that can harm him), but she won’t wave that flag again until the war ends.
Sister Lizzie, what do you think, I was asked to make the battle flag for the Wolverine Rangers! Charlie said when the subject of it came to be discussed, he rose right up and volunteered my name. Then Harve Stout – he was the lightning rod agent before he joined up – said his new wife, Jennie Kate, sews better. (The talk is Charlie was sweet on Jennie Kate before he went to Fort Madison, but it was the other way around. She was sweet on him, but he didn’t care for her any more than a yellow dog. My presence in Slatyfork as Mrs. Charles Bullock, a bride of one year, does not sit finely with her.) Charlie spoke up for me, and even though I have been here only two months, I was requested to make the flag. It is handsome indeed, with the head of a wolverine, cut from red madder. I applied the head onto canvas, using good stout thread; the flag may get shot up by the Rebs, but that wolverine will never ravel. Charlie carried the colors in the parade, and as he passed by, he dipped the flag to me, although Mother Bullock thought he saluted her. Well, let her, the old horned owl.
The night before Charlie left, I gave him the Friendship quilt I had worked on in secret, and told him it was my love letter to him. Your block with your name and sentiment arrived just as I was assembling the pieces. I was in a busy time, as I was making drawers and blouses for Charlie, too, but I wanted the quilt to be perfect, so that meant making the blocks myself. You saw them. They were the Churn Dash pattern, in blue and brown and cheddar yellow. Don’t you think that’s a pretty combination? After I made the blocks, I passed them around among Charlie’s friends to be signed. Some drew pictures and wrote verses. One neighbor printed an X, and wasn’t she the embarrassed one at doing it? Mother Bullock spoilt the fun by writing “Mrs. E. Huff” over the sign, so no one would know. I set up the quilt frame at Aunt Darnell’s house to keep it secret from Charlie, and ladies from the town came to stitch for an hour or two. Most did a good job, but I had to rip out the work of one because her stitches were long as inchworms, with knots the size of flies. Lizzie, you know I am not vain except for my sewing, and I think I can’t be beat at quilting. My stitches were the finest, even though, being in a hurry to finish, I took but eight stitches to the inch instead of twelve, as I usually try to do. When no one was about, I tucked powerful herbs and charms into the batting to keep Charlie safe. My husband pronounced the quilt a peach, fit for the bed of a king, and he in never going to lay it on the ground but what it has a gum blanket beneath. He says he will sleep every night with my name over his heart. Did you ever hear such a pretty speech? My patch is in the center, like a bull’s-eye. Yours is beside it. Mother Bullock’s is on the side. Jennie Kate Stout wrote:
When This You See
Well, he won’t see it often, because it is at the bottom of the quilt, and when he does see it, he will think what a sloppy wife she would have made him, because the ink was smeared. She asked for a second square to sign her name, but I said I hadn’t any extra.
I used leftover scraps to make Charlie a cunning housewife that is brown with blue pockets, bound in red twill, and it rolls up nice and fastens with hooks and red strings. Inside, the housewife is fitted up with needles and pins and thread so Charlie can mend his uniform if he gets shot. It’s told that many soldiers go ragged because they won’t sew for nothing, but Charlie sews as good as a woman. Remember when he boarded at the McCauley farm so that he could be close to me? The McCauley girls jollied him into learning to work a needle. Mattie McCauley says if a woman can plow, a man ought to know how to thread a needle. But how many do? I ask you.
That last night, after she gave Charlie a fork and spoon to take with him, Mother Bullock walked out to visit her sister, Aunt Darnell, giving me and Charlie time alone, as she should, since we haven’t been married so long, and I expect he’ll be away for some months. Then she sent word by a man who was passing by that she was took tired and couldn’t walk home, so was spending the night there. That was a good thing, because it gave me and Charlie the night alone without the worry of rattling the corn shucks in the tick when we got to romping. (Now, Lizzie,I said I would be frank, so you mustn’t take offense, and besides, you have wrote me about your and James and that business under the parlor table. I wanted to try it with Charlie, but I’ve told you how I thrash about so, and I was afraid I would bang my head on the underside of the table and break it – my head, that is.) That’s when I told Charlie he was one of the family men who’d enlisted. Now you mustn’t say a word about it, because I don’t want Mother Bullock to know awhile yet, for she is always one for acting proper and would make me stay away from the town. Charlie says it will be a boy, and he wants to name him for his brother Joseph. That’s to please Mother Bullock, because Jo was her favorite, and she misses him. Well, I’m sorry he got drowned, too, for if he was on this earth yet, me and Charlie never would have left Fort Madison to help her with the farm. But I don’t think we have to name my baby for him.
I told Charlie I fancy something patriotic for the name. “How does Abraham Lincoln Bullock suit you?” I asks.
“Not unless he’s born with a beard and a top hat,” replies Charlie. I think maybe I will be like the Missouri Compromise and try to come up with something to please everybody. How do you think Mother Bullock would like the name Liberty Jo? Maybe, like the Compromise, when the day is over, it won’t suit anyone.
When we took Charlie into town in the morning to climb aboard the wagons that took the boys away, he gave me a good squeeze and says, “Now, Doll Baby, you got to promise not to step whilst I’m away.” I reply real saucy, “When dead ducks fly! But I guess I can give my word not to step with a Reb.” Then I told him to promise he would come back with both his legs. You know how I love to dance, and I won’t be tied to a cripple with a stump. “Oh cow!” says I, “I’d rather deliver you up to the jaws of death than to see you hobble back on a pegleg.” Charlie laughed and promised his strong Yankee legs would keep him safe.
Mother Bullock said she’d welcome back her son in any condition, which put me out of sorts, because it was only a joke I’d made. She is as sour as bad cider when she wants to be, that one, and she is only the mother, not the wife. But I feel sorry for her, because if Charlie falls, she will never more have a son, and I could have plenty more husbands, I suppose, although I don’t want any but the one I have. Well, Charlie thought it was funny, and he was glad I sent him off with a laugh and not tears and lamentations, like some I could name – Jennie Kate Stout, for one. He said I have the right kind of pluck and will do for a soldier’s wife. I replied he is brave and true and will do for a soldier.
This from the proud wife of a Yankee volunteer, your sister,
Alice Keeler Bullock