On The March: A Few Notes on Shoes & Boots
Since the new blog series focuses on marching, I’ve been thinking about shoes and other footwear for the past week. Here are a few notes and primary source excerpts that might be helpful to keep in mind as the discussion of moving long distances by foot continues.
Ideally, the average infantryman had leather shoes called brogans, which by definition are “a coarse stout leather shoe reaching to the ankle.” Mass produced, these shoes were not famous for their comfort, arch support, or the difference between right and left. Thick wool socks added some padding to the footgear, and the rate of worn out socks kept the homefront women on both sides busily knitting replacements. According to C & C Sutlers (modern), the standard version of brogans during the Civil War was an “Modern 1851 Jefferson” which featured a squared toe and foot eyelets for the leather laces.[i] For Federal soldiers, brogans were part of the issued uniform, and in theory, the Confederacy practiced the same.
Boots were typically worn by officers, cavalrymen, and some artillerymen. There are some references of infantrymen finding/keeping/wearing “boots”, but whether these were traditional boots or just a word the veteran later used is sometimes questionable. John Billings gives a colorful description of boots in his classic text, Hardtack and Coffee, while poking fun at the soldiers who arrived with their own purchases and visions of military grandeur:
“Then, their boots! Such masterpieces of elegance and extravagance! Of the cavalry pattern, reaching above the knee, almost doing away with the necessity for pantaloons, sometimes of plain grained leather, sometimes of enamelled, elaborately stitched and stamped, but always seeming to mark their occupant as a man of note and distinction among his comrades. They seemed a sort of fortification about their owner, protecting him from too close contact with his vulgar surroundings. Alas! It never required more than one day’s hard march in these dashing appendages to humble their possessor so much that he would evacuate in as good order as possible when camp was reached, if not compelled to before.”[ii]
Check out J.E.B. Stuart’s tall boots in this photograph for a classic example of “stylish” cavalry boots:
Billings also noted that some boxes from the homefront occasionally contained custom ordered boots or shoes along with shoe nails for repairs. Confederate officers’ letters also contain requests that particular pairs of boots or other footwear be sent from home to camp. Perhaps it was a pair of custom-made boots that caught the eye of Sam Watkins on Murfreesboro battlefield:
“In passing over the battlefield, I came across a dead Yankee colonel. He had on the finest clothes I ever saw, a red sash and fine sword. I particularly noticed his boots. I needed them, and had made up my mind to wear them out for him. But I could not bear the thought of wearing dead men’s shoes. I took hold of the foot and raised it up and made one trial at the boot to get it off. I happened to look up, and the colonel had his eyes wide open, and seemed to be looking at me. He was stone dead, but I dropped that foot quick. It was my first and last attempt to rob a dead Yankee.”[iii]
As the war progressed, the Confederacy struggled to keep shoes on their soldiers. Depending on the region and the regiment, a Rebel soldiers’ best hope might be captured Federal supplies…or robbing the dead. One question that frequently comes up at New Market Battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley is “what happened to the shoes in ‘Field of Lost Shoes?’” (Field of Lost Shoes was a big, muddy grain field that suction-pulled the shoes off the feet of charging Confederates — and probably Union soldiers, too.) The short answer is that the Confederates collected the shoes after the battle. In fact, some of the Virginia Military Institute cadets later wrote that when they were pulled out of the battle after their famous charge, they retraced their steps, looking for their shoes and haversacks or knapsacks with food.
While most historians placed the “going to Gettysburg for shoes” story in the “nice myths” category, it is true that the Confederate army and individual soldiers took advantage of the Maryland and Pennsylvania invasions to get new shoes and other needed or desired supplies during the campaign. Alfred M. Edgar of the 27th Virginia Infantry (Stonewall Brigade) did a little “shopping” during the 1862 Maryland Campaign to procure new shoes:
“We have the most stringent orders against straggling or depredations on private property, but as I am almost without shoes, I ask permission of Col. Grisby to be allowed to go ahead of the army and do some shopping, but he says it will be directly against orders for him to give me permission and that he is obligated to refuse. Now I cannot march barefooted when there are shoe stores in reach, so I must “maneuver” some. I have a friend, Lieutenant Yarrell of Wheeling, who is in need of some clothing, too, and he agrees to go with me. So by fast walking and flanking we get in advance of the command and reach Frederick City in time to do some shopping without…notice sufficient to call down discipline for disobeying orders.”[iv]
During the forced march to Sharpsburg later in the campaign, Edgar noted:
The physical effort required is greater than most of the men are equal to. So many of them are without shoes and are foot sore…. Night comes on and we have made as much as twenty miles or more. All of us are very tired and some have fallen out of rank, and many others are weary and footsore, that it seems that they will not be able to get much farther…. I congratulate myself that I succeeded in getting my shoes whilst in Frederick City, otherwise I might now be among the number who had to fall out of the ranks, and that is something I have never had to do yet.”[v]
While I have not had the experience of marching 20 miles in flat-soled brogans, I had the unfortunate experience last autumn of a severe case of plantar fasciitis. If I’d been a soldier, I would’ve been out of the ranks. On a few particularly days, the pain was so bad that every step was like a knife driven into the bottom of my foot with the nerves screaming all the way up my leg. In the midst of hobbling around and trying to hide the severity from my parents who were houseguests, I kept thinking about Civil War soldiers. Yes, I had injured my foot and I already knew it would take a long time for the muscle to heal and re-stretch properly again. But I had the benefit of ice packs, arch supports to put into my shoes and boots, and modern medical advice. Civil War infantrymen didn’t. Reexamining their flat brogans and knowing that a prime cause for plantar fasciitis is lack of arch support made me wonder how many soldiers were marching or going into battle with that type of foot pain.
Thinking about the quality (and lack thereof) in Civil War brogans and then keeping that in mind when looking at the distance of marches, the wet or icy road conditions, or scarce supplies brings a helpful, physical perspective to marching. What type of shoes were they actually marching through? Could footsore have meant something more serious than blisters and aches? How did shoes or the scarcity of shoes affect campaigns? Did shoes make a difference in the outcome of a battle based on how many soldiers actually reached the field after a long march?
To loosely adapt the old proverb to the American Civil War and infantry shoes, is it possible that…
For want of shoes the regiment’s strength was halved or lost.
For want of the full strength regiment the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the campaign was lost.
And all for the want of shoes.
[i] C&C Sutler, Civil War Shoes. Accessed on 4/6/2022. https://www.ccsutlery.com/store/civil-war-shoes-boots.html#:~:text=Brogan%20a%20term%20generally%20applied,four%20eyelets%20and%20leather%20laces.
[ii] John D. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee (1887). Accessed through Google Books, Page 206.
[iii] Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War (New York: Macmillan, 1962) Page 64.
[iv] Alfred Mallory Edgar, My Reminiscences of the Civil War with the Stonewall Brigade and the Immortal 600 (Charleston, 35th Star Publishing, 2011). Page 90.
[v] Ibid., Pages 91-92.
3 Responses to On The March: A Few Notes on Shoes & Boots
I really enjoyed this article, especially the thoughts at the end on how battles and wars may be lost by men without shoes. I think you will enjoy some excerpts from my stash of family letters. The letters quoted here were written by Pvt Spann Jeffers of the 7th SC Cavalry, serving north of the James in 1864, under General Martin Gary. He and his brothers always wrote home (Edgefield District, SC) when they needed new clothes; but their need for clothes, even coats, was never as important to them as their need for boots.
“Camp of 7th Regt SCC, Near Smiths Store
June 25th 1864
My Dear Sister Annie …
…I notice what you say about the Boots as also the means of replacing my old shoes. I have always disapproved of depriving prisoners of their private property or of such as they will need. If however a man actually needs a pr of shoes and takes those of one who has been killed there can be no harm done. I should dislike tho’ to be served like one of Co. “A” was yesterday. Seeing a “Blue Coat” apparently dead, he went up and began to pull off his shoes, when the Yankee began to kick, and scared poor “Reb” worse than if he had been shot at….
….There is no one coming from home now, except the wounded and it will be sometime before any of them are well, so you will have to keep the Boots until Konty’s Raiders get out of the way, and send them by express to Lieut WH Jeffers [Spann’s older brother], 7th SCC Richmond Va. Please put in them two handkerchiefs, one towel & one pair of socks (not particular as to quality of handkerchiefs)….”
Boots were often mentioned in Spann’s letters. Apparently he still did not have any by July 7th:
“Camp Co “G” 7th Regt SCC, Near Chafins Farm
July 7th 1864
My Dear Sister Annie….
….I am happy to say that the shoeless have been shod so I do not need my boots now. If Pa has not shipped them by Express as I requested in my last letter to you please ask him to keep them until Charlie Lawton returns….”
Nor did he have them by the end of July:
“Camp 7th SC Cavalry, Near “Deep Bottom”
July 31st 1864
My Dear Sister Annie! ….
….Mr Lawton has reached here trunkless and Bootless, his trunk having been burned on that ill-fated car which was consumed near Danville Va. I have a good pr of shoes and will do without the Boots until winter. I am however sorry that they have been lost, and desire to thank Pa for the trouble and expense which they cost him….”
At last, new boots had reached Spann by the end of November. His letter of thanks even touches on the need for arch support!
“Camp 7th So Ca Cav, Near Richmond
November 27 / 64
My Dear Ma….
….I regret that I have not had an earlier opportunity of thanking you all for the beautiful clothes which Mr McKellar brought me. They are so warm and comfortable, but rather fine for Camp. My pants, vest, and shirts fit me very well indeed. The Boots are rather too low in the instep but I can wear them very well. I am now well prepared for winter and will need nothing more to make me as comfortable and contented as absence from my dear Home will admit….”
What things could a soldier find in nature to wear on his feet if he lost his boots?