That Most Indispensible Item: Confederate Shoes

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At no point during its illustrious career was the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in more wretched condition than following the Maryland invasion of 1862. On October 9, 1862 the Richmond Daily Dispatch made editorial comment on this subject: “Posterity will scarcely believe that the wonderful campaign which has just ended with it’s terrible marches and desperate battles, was made by men, one-fourth of whom were entirely barefooted, and one-half of whom were ragged as scarecrows . . . We cease to wonder at the number of stragglers, when we hear how many among them were shoeless, with stone bruises on their feet.” Indeed, even before General Robert E. Lee began his northward march a Maryland newspaper correspondent reckoned that the army was already short 40,000 pairs of shoes. Whether or not this estimate is exaggerated, it does serve to highlight a basic fact: keeping the troops adequately shod was a problem that plagued Confederate authorities from first to last.

As early as August 1861 Acting Quartermaster-General A. C. Myers was struggling to meet demands from troops in the field. To General Joseph E. Johnston at Manassas Junction he wrote: “We have sent to Europe for shoes, and I have officers all over the Confederate States purchasing shoes, making contracts with tanners for leather and with manufacturers for making leather for shoes.” Yet, since army regulations specified the issuance of four pair of shoes per year, Myers wryly added: “The resources of our country are far too limited for the great demand an immense army creates for supplies of every kind. The demand is double what it would be from the same population in times of peace.”

Confederate low quarter brogans from the collection of the North Carolina MOH

Confederate low quarter brogans from the collection of the North Carolina MOH

Initially, Myers’ words rang only too true. But as the war progressed the Confederate shoe industry gamely managed to limp along. In October 1862 Congress gave President Jefferson Davis power to detail as many as 2,000 “skilled” men then serving in the ranks to the quartermaster department for shoe manufacturing. Yet, shortages were often more an issue of logistics than supply. Since marching wore out sole leather, acute deficiencies in shoe stocks coincided directly with seasons of active operations. Through a combination of heroic state and central government production efforts, importations, battlefield gleanings, civilian confiscations, and sheer improvisation measures including canvas shoes and rawhide moccasins, periods of abject need among the soldiers were usually of short duration.

What type of foot covering did the average Southern fighting man wear in the field? Clothing accounts of the 7th Louisiana Infantry, kept during the winter of 1862-63, list a combination of “English shoes,” “canvas shoes,” “Confederate shoes,” and “wood sole shoes.” For a unit that had seen as much close combat as the 7th, the absence of “Federal shoes” is noteworthy. While clearly not a statistically valid method of interpretation, interesting insight into the most common patterns and shoe styles worn by CS soldiers can be gained through studying surviving examples and examining known contemporary images, mostly battlefield death studies. The photographic record clearly demonstrates that the average Southern fighting man wore shoes of Confederate manufacture. While the variety of types are endless, their production characteristics generally follow two main patterns: (A) a low-quarter civilian style of inferior make, generally roughly finished, and (B) a high quartered Oxford shoe of solid construction of the style worn by laborers of the period.

Sturdy shoes issued to M. Page Lapham of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans

Sturdy shoes issued to M. Page Lapham of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans

Low-quartered shoes may have been the most common style of Confederate shoe. They generally sported only 2-3 rows of eyelets and often had only a single sole. While some collectors call these “Georgia shoes,” that is probably an oversimplification. They were likely produced throughout the South. The higher quartered Oxford shoes are also commonly seen, although not in as great number. These brogans exhibit a somewhat rounded toe and 4-6 pairs of eyelets. Vamps are usually sewn over the quarters with two rows of stitching. Their double soles are held together by two rows of wooden pegs. They were quite durable. An excellent example of Confederate Oxfords exists in the Museum of The Confederacy in Richmond. They are identified to Private M. Page Lapham of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans.

Concerning the quality of shoes furnished to his army General Robert E. Lee had this to say in January, 1864: “The Chief Quartermaster of the Army brought me this morning a sample of shoes recently sent from Richmond. One pair was of Richmond manufacture and another from Columbus, Georgia. They were intended to be fair samples of each lot and were selected with that view. . . . In the Richmond shoe the face of the skin next [to] the animal was turned out, which is contrary to the practice of the best makers and contrary to the arrangement of nature . . . The Columbus shoe was not half tanned and the shoe was badly made. The soles of both [pair were] slight and would not stand a week’s march in mud and water.” Little wonder that one Rebel soldier concluded that his government-made shoes were “pitiable specimens indeed.”

CDV of Confederate shoes attributed to the State of South Carolina

CDV of Confederate shoes attributed to the State of South Carolina

As indicated above, Great Britain was also a major shoe supply source beginning as early as late 1861. While some recipients complained about the quality of imported footwear, surviving examples are generally well-made and suited for hard service. A common style English shoe is known as the Blucher pattern brogan. Made of fine leather, it boasts two pair of brass eyelets, sewn soles, and herringbone twill “pull loops.” They were often adorned with hobnails to increase mileage. English shoes are also frequently noted in battlefield studies from 1863 onward By late war, many, many Confederates were wearing English made shoes uniforms as well.

Another expedient to relieve the acute shortage of footwear in the Confederacy was the introduction of canvas shoes. First issued in late 1862, these innovative foot coverings were the forerunner of the modern day jungle boot. They were made of two layers of sewn canvas with leather reinforcements on the toes and tops. A member of the 63rd Virginia who received such a pair in February 1863 opined: “The government has lately furnished – for the lack of leather no doubt – canvas shoes. The soles are good, and they would answer very admirably for summer wear, but it will readily appear how insufficient they must be at this season.” A deserter notice later that year for a soldier in the 42nd Virginia also provides the following description: “[Private Samuel H.] Peay [of Company F] is about 6 feet high 28 years old, auburn hair, blue eyes, pale complexion; had on when he left grey jacket and pants, broad brim straw hat covered with black cloth, and cloth shoes.”

A distinctly “colorful” side note to the lore of cloth shoes is provided by Richmond hospital matron Phoebe Pember: “When the quartermaster-general issued canvas shoes [to the recovering patients] there was a loud dissatisfaction expressed in constant grumbling until “some genius dyed the whitish tops by a liberal application of pokeberries . . . and for many months crimson shoes were the rage and long rows of unshod men would sit under the eaves of the wards, all diligently employed in the same labor and up to their elbows in red juice.”

A typical pair of Confederate made brogans. Photo courtesy the History Network

A typical pair of Confederate made brogans. Photo courtesy the History Network

No study of Confederate footwear would be complete without acknowledging the vital contributions of the United States Quartermaster Department. That Southern soldiers gleaned much-needed shoes from many a battlefield and captured Federal supply depots has been stated too often to bear repeating here. Yet, the photographic evidence indicates that liberated Union shoes were not as commonly worn as one might expect. Often, it was a matter of “time and place.” For instance, images of Confederate dead on the Antietam battlefield show many of the men wearing Federal style brogans in near-new condition. Likely, they are part of the large shoe stocks acquired with “Stonewall” Jackson’s capture of Harper’s Ferry.

Some final insights into Confederate footwear may also be of interest. While hobnails were fairly standard on English shoes, they are also frequently noted on more generic shoe types. Additionally, shoes were not only tied with leather thongs, but frequently with ribbon or lace. English made buckle shoes also saw much use. And lastly, Confederate soldiers did blouse their trousers on occasion, as many photographs show. Please left click on images for larger views.

A pair of buckle style English made shoes. Southern soldiers generally described imported footwear as being "excellent" in quality

A pair of buckle style English made shoes. Southern soldiers generally described imported footwear as being “excellent” in quality

Brass eyelets on the shoes of a Confederate casualty at Petersburg identify these shoes as being of English manufacture. Photo from LOC

Brass eyelets on the shoes of a Confederate casualty at Petersburg identify these shoes as being of English manufacture. Photo from LOC

by Bob Williams

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