“If I could get leather I could set 500 shoemakers to work”: Lee, ANV, and shoes for ’64

The Army of Northern Virginia had a thing about shoes.  Never seemed to be enough of them.  On this day (January 30) in 1864, General Robert E. Lee sent an inquiry to Brigadier-General Alexander Lawton, Quartermaster General for the Confederate Army:

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,
January 30, 1864.

Brig. Gen. A. R. Lawton,  Quartermaster-General,     C. S. Army:

General: I have sent two quartermasters over the ridge to purchase leather for the use of this army. The one in the lower valley reports that he has found 2,880 sides, all in the hands of original manufacturers except 220 sides, which are in the hands of speculators. The officer in the upper valley had only visited three tanneries when he wrote, and had only found 400 sides ready for use, but many were in course of preparation. Some of this leather could be bought at Government prices, though it was offered in exchange for rawhides. They asked as high, in some cases, as $10 a pound for upper and $7 for sole.

The chief quartermaster of the army brought me this morning a sample of the shoes recently sent from Richmond. One pair was of Richmond manufacture and another from Columbus, Ga. They were intended to be fair samples of each lot and were selected with that view. Neither could compare with the shoes made in this army. In the Richmond shoe the face of the leather was turned in, that is, the side of the skin next the animal was turned out, which is contrary to the practice of the best makers and contrary to the arrangement of nature. Without knowing the result of experiment in this matter, I should therefore think it wrong. The leather of the Columbus shoe was not half tanned and the shoe was badly made; the soles of both slight, and would not stand a week’s march in mud and water.

If I could get leather I could set 500 shoemakers to work. The scraps would answer for repairs. I have the workmen and tools. Can you get for me the leather I have referred to above, or authorize the chief quartermaster of the army to do so? I am not in favor of exchanging hides for leather at the rates established by the schedule, viz, 45 cents for the hides and $2.80 for the leather. The old rule in Virginia, and I believe it is still practiced, was to receive one-half of the leather produced by the hides. I do not know whether we could exchange at that rate. The army is in great distress for shoes and clothes. Every inspection report painfully shows it–artillery, cavalry, and infantry. The requisitions sent in are unanswered.

I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee, General.

So Lee, in command of the Confederacy’s most important field army.  His daily schedule ranked for only the most important activities requiring the utmost attention.  And here Lee spent what one must consider a good deal of that precious time addressing foot gear.   And not just making requisitions for more shoes, but going into considerable discussion about the manner of constructions and purchase of raw materials.  An important topic – the army could not move without shoes – but a topic which certainly distracted Lee from operational and tactical matters.

This is Exhibit A, demonstrating the collapse of the Confederate war machine in early 1864.

(OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 1131-2.)

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8 responses to ““If I could get leather I could set 500 shoemakers to work”: Lee, ANV, and shoes for ’64

  1. It’s also exhibit A of Lee’s ineffective staff organization.

    • How so? Was this because Lee’s staff did not chase down the leather? The fact that Lee was able to describe the ills of shoes in detail (wrong side of the skins, etc.), speaks to Lee’s staff doing their job and giving the boss the right information. Nay… I say this goes right to the top!

  2. An army absent shoes offers strategic implications for that army.

    Commanding generals quite properly focus on strategic issues affecting their army.

    RE Lee, as usual, was herein performing his strategic duty.

  3. It also points to a strategic blunder by the Confederacy earlier in the war: over-mobilization of key workers. Early in the war, many Southern patriots thought the war would be short and rushed to enlist before the “fun” was over. Those enlisted included many of the South’s meager supply of skilled artisans: shoemakers, mechanics, iron makers, and others. Once these men were in the Confederate Army, the army was loathe to give them up.

    Think about it: Lee boasted that his army was already producing better shoes than Richmond and Columbus AND that he has 500 shoemakers available.

    Just a thought: what if Lee had held a shoe making contest and picked out the 50 best shoe makers from the Army of Northern Virginia? What if he had then sent 25 of these men to Richmond and 25 to Columbus to supervise the shoemaking operations there?

    The Tredegar Iron Works faced similar problems when they tried to get skilled iron workers back from the army. Lee–and Johnston before him–refused to release highly-skilled iron workers and mechanics who probably should never have been allowed to enlist.

  4. “Just a thought: what if Lee had held a shoe making contest and picked out the 50 best shoe makers from the Army of Northern Virginia? What if he had then sent 25 of these men to Richmond and 25 to Columbus to supervise the shoemaking operations there?”

    I think that would have proven foolish… and I’m not so sure Lee didn’t realize the same. There are more than a few shoemaker details that I can think of, who never came back to the army. The shoemakers needed to remain with the army. Additionally, 50 shoemakers wasn’t enough to fit the bill.

  5. Pingback: Cenantua's Blog

  6. Pingback: 150 years ago: Lawton to Lee – “Your shoes are on back order!” | To the Sound of the Guns

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