150 years ago: Lawton to Lee – “Your shoes are on back order!”

(Sorry about the earlier misfire of this post.  Here’s the REAL post!)

We’ve seen, and discussed, the shoe problem within the Army of Northern Virginia.  General Robert E. Lee proposed making shoes with labor within the army.  And, as my pal Robert Moore has pointed out, some called upon the home front to help resolve the shortage. Well… sort of “home front” and “other front,” as the Shenandoah Valley might be.

But what did Brigadier-General Alexander Lawton, Quartermaster General for the Confederate Army have to say about this?  On this day (February 5) in 1864, Lawton responded to Lee’s inquiry:

… I have carefully considered your views, and agree with you fully that our main reliance must be our home resources, though I do think that under proper management importations from abroad will go far to supply certain deficiencies. I am glad, too, to see that you do not encourage further the purchase of leather by the exchange of hides, as that course undoubtedly leads to an extravagant expenditure of material. I prefer even, as heretofore suggested, resorting to impressment.

I am making every effort to fill promptly the requisition from Major Harman for leather with which to repair shoes. I am compelled to say, however, that it will not be practicable, for the present at least, to furnish you with material from the depot at this point to be made up into shoes in camp. ….

So with that Lawton shot down Lee’s suggestion.  But Major J.A. Harman, Assistant Quartermaster on Lee’s staff, would at least get material for repairs.

Lawton went on to say the depot in Richmond was turning out 500 shoes a day.

The samples forwarded from your command, especially that from Posey’s brigade, compare favorably with shoes manufactured elsewhere. It is not easy, though, to make all of a production correspond with furnished samples. Although many of the detailed men sent to the depot are but cobblers, and some not even that, I am satisfied that the shoes turned out here are fair specimens and serviceable. I am informed by Major Ferguson that two members of your staff, General Chilton and Major Taylor, seemed thoroughly satisfied on this point, after a personal inspection of his establishment.

This, of course, was included to address Lee’s complaint about the construction of shoes.  Notice that Lee’s staff was heavily involved with this issue.

Lawton indicated he would provide Harman the ability to bring in more leather:

I inclose several blank authorities, to be filled up with the names of such agents or officers as Major Harman may select to obtain from the valley the leather reported to be there. Some I have signed and others go unsigned, as it is my impression that general orders, if not the law, require that all impressments made for the immediate use of an army shall be authorized by the commanding officers of the army or some detachment thereof. I hope that, through energetic and discreet agents, Major Harman may succeed in procuring large quantities of leather from the valley and other accessible points, and that your expectations in connection with its manufacture into shoes by the men available in camp may be fully realized.

Yes, Robert, he was directed to go into the Valley for leather.  How would those folks look upon such “impressments”?

Lawton continued with a brief discussion of the Confederate shoe-making capacity and planned expansion:

… I have ordered a lot of shoemakers’ tools just received at Mobile to be sent forward, and it may be that Major Dillard, at Columbus, Ga., will be able to spare some leather. I look for his report daily.  … In the important item of shoes, I believe we are now laboring under our greatest difficulties, and that the coming spring will bring great relief. I do not allude so much to the relief incident to the season itself as that which will result from our increased resources. Besides the shoe establishment here, there are two other large ones in Georgia, at Columbus and Atlanta, and minor affairs at other points. Arrangements have been recently entered into for the introduction of machinery, which, with limited details, will enable two of these workshops to turn out 1,000 pairs of shoes each daily. Major Dillard has also in hand a very large number of hides that have been for some time in the vats, and which he reports will be available in the spring. A small portion of that material would relieve, if available now, the wants of the army.

OK, let’s consider the numbers.  Two workshops would turn out 1,000 shoes a day, each.  Assume Richmond continued to produce 500 per day.  Let’s swag and say the “other points” could add at least 500 more per day.  While there were other sources of shoes, let’s just say those enumerated in that letter from Lawton were turned to just supplying Lee’s command.

Around that time, the Army of Northern Virginia had some 79,600 men (both present and absent, because even absent feet need shoes).  So full output from those sources would take 26-27 days to outfit every man with a new pair of shoes.  And that figure doesn’t account for Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s detached First Army Corps. Their returns for January 31, 1864 indicated 25,500 present and 27,300 absent.  So add another 17 days worth of production to put a shoe on every foot in East Tennessee.

But experience says two pairs are needed – if not immediately issued at least held in stock for quick replacement.  Add another month or two, to produce enough shoes for a ready supply once the army starts marching in spring.  This is not, of course, to say that every single soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia needed two sets of shoes that winter.  But consider the production output against the number of men supported.

What about the rest of the Confederacy?  On February 2, General J.E. Johnston telegraphed Richmond asking, a second time, for “authority to procure by purchase or impressment 7,000 or 8,000 pairs of shoes reported to be in towns in Georgia.”  Later on February 8, Johnston wrote to Lawton explaining the urgent telegram “because we require far more than your shops can furnish.”  And yes, the shops referenced were the same mentioned in Lawton’s report to Lee.  Robbing Joe Johnston to pay Bobby Lee?

Turning back to Lawton’s letter to Lee, in the middle of the explanation of shoe production, the quartermaster inquired:

As to the article of blankets, we are entirely dependent upon the foreign markets for our supply. There is not a solitary establishment within the limits of the Confederacy where they are made, nor is there one, since the destruction of Crenshaw’s, at this place, by fire, that possesses the appliances for making them. In view of this, would it not be well to require the men to turn them in for reissue just as soon as approaching summer will justify, as at that season these articles are wasted?

I would imagine Lee’s cheeks turned a deep shade of red as his eyes crossed that question mark.

Concluding his response, Lawton wrote:

While all called for has not been sent, and that would be difficult to do, between our limited resources and the liberal character of the requisitions, surely the supplies forwarded, embracing thousands of pairs of shoes, blankets, and suits of clothing, must have filled some of the requisitions.

Shoes, blankets, and clothing – strategic commodities for the Confederacy in the winter of 1864.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 1146-7; Volume 32, Part II, Serial 58, pages 654 and 697.)


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