Lost Shoes: A Historical Perspective

Cannon overlooking “Field of Lost Shoes” at New Market

Missing shoes. Symbols of a hurried movement or a panic. Symbols left behind when the person has vanished suddenly from the scene.

In Civil War history, lost shoes are often associated with New Market’s battlefield even though it was not the only place with deep mud and missing footgear. On May 15, 1864, when the Corps of Cadets from Virginia Military Institute advanced into the muddy field separating them from a Union battery, the deep boggy soil pulled the shoes from their feet. The name “Field of Lost Shoes” has become synonymous with New Market, drawing from veterans’ stories and primary source accounts. Thinking about the Field of Lost Shoes prompted larger perspective about other times in the past when people have left behind this all important pair of items, usually as a silent testimony of their murder or a tragedy of epic proportions.

The lost shoes at New Market have disappeared. Most reclaimed by their owners, a supply-deprived army, or desperate civilians. But for the moments during the battle and aftermath, the worn leather footgear sat, imprisoned in the deep mud. A silent testimony to focus, hurry, and an ending of personal and battle stories. The temporary left behind in the storied rush for glory. Still, left behind. Leather soaking the wetness of rain-drenched fields and the blood of the fallen. Lost shoes, lost innocence.

Other places, other moments in history have their own lost shoes. Visuals that startle and bring home the reality of man’s cruelty during and beyond war.

Empty, lonely shoes cast of bronze poise along the edge of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary. They mark the place where 20,000 Jews stood in the days of 1944 and 1945. Where they were murdered and their bodies tumbled into the river water. Lost shoes, lost families, lost stories.

Memorial in Budapest. (public domain image)

Similarly, a room in the United States Holocaust Museum contains heaps of shoes. Taken from victims of Nazi brutality, the shoes remained, silent witnesses shouting accusation. The people had disappeared into gas chambers and crematories, but their shoes bear testimony. Lost shoes, lost lives.

Eighteen years ago today—on September 11, 2001—lost shoes told yet another tale of destruction. One eyewitness in New York City recalled the moment she realized the scope of the tragedy following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center: “As I got closer to Vesey Street, I saw men’s shoes. Then I realized that people had been blown out of their shoes. There were computer bags, pursues, desk items, pieces of computers. I realized they were from the building. It was my first moment of understanding that this wasn’t just a building on fire. This is people.”[i]

A shoe pulled from the World Trade Center rubble. (Associated Press photo)

That same day in Washington D.C., security evacuated the White House staff, expecting an imminent attack on the executive buildings. “ ‘Don’t run!’ the guards should, and the torrent slowed. We poured through the tall, carved oak doors of the building onto the avenue between the Executive Office Building and the West Wing of the White House and were reinforced by another rivulet of secretaries and staffers. The guards suddenly changed their minds. ‘Run!’ they now shouted. ‘Ladies – if you can’t run in heels, kick off your shoes.’”[ii] Lost shoes, lost safety, lost peace.

If the stories simply ended with abandoned shoes as a testimony to the hurry or death in these incidents of the past, it would be a visual to loss without a turning point.

New Market can lead the thoughts again. The lost shoes in the Bushong Field signaled impetuous rush that secured one of the last major Confederate victories in the Shenandoah Valley. They symbolize something bigger than just a pair of missing shoes and an opportunity to ponder meaning.

The Memorial, depicting empty shoes, along the banks of the Danube offers an opportunity to remember the murdered and promise to fight against similar atrocities in the future.

The shoes—gray, faded, and decaying—resting in piles in concentration camps shouted silent accusations at the killers and revealed the scope of the deaths to the arriving Allies. Some of the shoes now rest in another memorial, still wordlessly begging for remembrance for the victims.

The empty shoes and kicked-off heels strewn in New York City and Washington D.C. on 9/11 pointed to a desperate rush for safety and the sudden attack that violently claimed the lives of so many. But the account had not ended. Like the other historic examples, the lost shoes of that day offered an end and a beginning.

In the words of David Frum, recalling night in Washington after the horrifying day in 2001:

We were all weary from the emotions that had surged through us that day: fear and rage and grief. But we were not depleted. The fear and the rage receded, the grief had to be postponed. What was left was a budding tenderness toward every symbol of this wounded country. The lights that illuminated the monuments of the capital had been defiantly switched on. The evening air was sweet and soft. And we looked with new and more loving eyes at the familiar streets…. And there! There! There was the flag over the White House. Tomorrow it would be lowered to half-staff. Today it flew high, brilliantly lit, in defiance of all terror….”[iii]

When we stand at the now grassy field, along the bank of the Danube, in the memorial halls, or at Ground Zero, there is a sense of loss. A feeling of rage. A chance to reevaluate. An opportunity to promise defiance to humanity’s history of cruelty.

New Market’s losses in 1864 pale in comparison to the thousands in later genocides and terror attacks, but a common thread in these accounts is the haunting visual of something ordinary left behind. Shoes. A familiar object, often a necessary article. Their abandonment speaks volumes to what happened in a push for victory, in murder scenes, or in the unexpected blasts of terror. And when we are faced with these common shoes from the lost, we are forced to realize the impact of history on people as common as ourselves.

Sources:

[i] Newseum with Cathy Trost & Alicia C. Shepard. Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.)

[ii] Frum, David. The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. (New York: Random House, 2003). Page 115.

[iii] Ibid., Page 121-122.

Photo Credit: https://nypost.com/2015/03/15/911-rubble-haunted-by-female-ghost-book/

https://www.history.com/news/9-11-artifacts-ground-zero-photos

https://www.911memorial.org/blog/911-memorial-museum-home-shoes-survivors

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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5 Responses to Lost Shoes: A Historical Perspective

  1. Ms Bierle, I would like to send you a complimentary copy of my book, one chapter of which deals with the heroism of the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market.
    email me? erichedden@gmail.com

  2. Douglas Pauly says:

    Chilling..

  3. Duffy says:

    Having been present that day working for a tv news org.my first memory of many is the shoes…not only the ones from the building coming down but especially the ones that were run out of…mostly ladies shoes…blocks even from Liberty,Vesey and Broadway,etc…
    Strange after 18 yrs.this is the first time I ever read anyone using shoes as a vehicle to paint a picture of some very terrible events in world history as I did that day in 2001..thank you for the history lesson…

  4. rarerootbeer says:

    You are comparing the lost shoes of the cadets fighting for their homeland against the Union army with the lost shoes of Holocaust victims and 9/11 victims. The cadets were victims of Confederate leaders who allowed children to fight and die for their ability to continue their peculiar institution.

  5. Derek says:

    Ms. Bierle, thank you for this excellent post. I’ve had the privilege to see the Shoes on the Danube in person and it is one of the most powerful and poignant historical landmarks you’ll ever see.

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