By Brendan Wolfe
One of the most persistent legends surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 150 years ago, is that it was fought over shoes.
After the battle, Confederate general Henry Heth, a Virginian whose troops were the first to engage on July 1, reported on why he had sent a portion of his division into the small Pennsylvania town. “On the morning of June 30,” Heth wrote, “I ordered Brigadier General [Johnston] Pettigrew to take his brigade to Gettysburg, search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and return the same day.” That parenthetical phrase “shoes especially” has taken on a life of its own over the years, slipping into myth.
So what are the real reasons for the battle? No question, Union and Confederate armies collided unexpectedly at Gettysburg. And yes, Heth’s men were short on shoes. A rumor had even been circulating that shoes were to be found in Gettysburg. But there was no shoe warehouse or factory in town. Shoes, in fact, were only part of the reason that Heth’s men, in his own words, “stumbled into this fight.”
After Pettigrew encountered Union troopers on June 30, Confederate general A. P. Hill sent Heth to Gettysburg the next day to reconnoiter. His mission: to find out whether the soldiers in town were harmless home guard troops or the more fearsome Army of the Potomac. Heth was not supposed to start a battle; in fact, he was under specific orders from Robert E. Lee not to do so. The Virginian started one anyway.
Nothing about war is simple, of course, and in the same way that Heth stumbled into battle, one can also stumble into a fierce historical argument. Heth’s decisions were angrily debated by Lost Cause historians after the war, part of a larger, often very personal battle over who was to blame for Gettysburg. John S. Mosby wrote in 1908 that Heth and Hill were not interested in shoes at all, but in battle, glory, and prisoners. “If Hill and Heth had stood still,” Mosby wrote, “they would not have stumbled.”
Nothing about war is simple, of course, and in the same way that Heth stumbled into battle, one can also stumble into a fierce historical argument.
Why, then, the focus on shoes? For some early historians, it may have been a way of distracting readers from more prickly questions surrounding the Confederate defeat. Besides that, the sometimes exaggerated image of shoeless soldiers conveniently underscored the Lost Cause notion of nobility achieved through suffering. By calling attention to the ragged state of Johnny Reb, these writers also called attention to how the underfed, underequipped Confederate army had still managed to triumph in battle. This couldn’t last forever, of course; Gettysburg was proof of that. And while no one argued that Lee lost the battle because his men did not have enough shoes, the image of a shoeless soldier speaks for itself.
Finally, from a literary standpoint, the phrase “shoes especially” represents the perfect detail, quickly translating abstract historical forces into blisters on aching feet and the smell of new shoe leather. Gettysburg readily lends itself to being read as a three-act tragedy, dominated, as many have argued, by Lee’s hubris. That it started by accident, over something so “pedestrian” as shoes, is too perfect for writers to ignore. Shelby Foote certainly did not, crafting a scene in The Civil War: A Narrative (1963) in which A. P. Hill airily dismissed the possibility that the Army of the Potomac was in Gettysburg.
In Foote’s dialogue, Heth was quick to take him up on that. “If there is no objection,” he said, “I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes.”
“None in the world,” Hill responded.