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On Your Feet! Footwear of the Civil War

Posted on Friday, March 31, 2017 at 1:30 pm

TYPES

The diagrams illustrate the principal types of footwear used during the Civil War. In America, footwear with tops above the ankle was called “boots,” with anything shorter than that called “shoes.”  A “bootee” was a short boot (covering the ankle joint). “Long boots” were boots going to the knee or higher, including those worn both by J.E.B. Stuart and by General Lee when he was still a brigadier. While the oxford is the preferred shoe style today, that style was unusual during the Civil War, with the brogan or bootee being vastly more common.

Then as now, the type of footwear could be designated by an adjective modifying “boots” or “shoes” (e.g., Wellington boots) or by adding an ess to turn the adjective into a noun (“Wellingtons”).

Although we are concerned primarily with men’s shoes, Balmorals and Congress gaiters were worn by both men and women.
Some boots were named after military men who wore or popularized them, such as the French emperor Napoleon, the English Lord Wellington, and the Prussian Marshal Blucher.  Other boots were named after places. Malakoffs (a description of which I’ve not seen) were named after a tower or fortress on the Crimea where a battle of the same name was fought. Balmoral shoes, boots or bootees were named after the Scottish town where Queen Victoria built a castle. Oxfords were named after the English college town whose students started wearing the shoes that bear its name. “Jefferson bootees” got their name from Thomas Jefferson, who wore and popularized them.

“Congress” gaiters were not named after the U.S. Congress. Rather, the adjective refers to the fact that they were joined by gussets made of elastic (yes, it did exist during the Civil War).  For example, there were “congress garters,” meaning elastic garters. The elastic in congress gaiters enable one to slip the foot into the shoe, while holding the foot in thereafter.

One footwear adjective that has proved baffling is “stoga.”  It does not refer to a type of leather, nor a type of footwear (since there were stoga shoes and stoga brogans as well as stoga boots).  A report of prices of military supplies in Oregon refers to “stoga boots (coarse).”  This leads me to guess that stoga was applied to any type of rough, workaday footwear (perhaps with the rough side of the leather out?).  The term originated west of the Alleghenies.

Another problematic adjective is “Conestoga.”  There are postwar accounts claiming that given people before the war (including young Abe Lincoln) wore Conestoga boots.  However, the lack of any prewar use of that term leads me to doubt that.  Instead, I suspect that postwar people who heard the term “stoga boots” simply assumed that it was a contraction of “Conestoga boots.” We know what assuming does.

MATERIALS

Footwear might be made of a variety of materials.  Slippers were generally made of some sturdy cloth. Canvas sporting shoes (Civil War “tennies”) were not unknown, but were limited to officers in camp (not being waterproof enough for use on the march). India-rubber/ gum shoes and boots were not unknown. However, the material we usually think of when one says “Wellingtons” (i.e., rubber) did not become a common material for that boot until after the Civil War.

Nevertheless, far and away the most common material was leather, even for soles. The three thicknesses were calfskin, cowhide and, in between, kip (leather from a young cow).

Although shoe construction is beyond the scope of this article, we should mention that uppers might be affixed to soles with either wooden pegs or sewing.  I don’t know whether metal nails were used, but would eschew them for practical reasons:  with every step, they act like little knives, widening the holes until the uppers detach from the soles.

FOOTWEAR EXPRESSIONS

While shoes are supposed to be unmentionable in arab countries, in america they spawned a number of idiomatic phrases that were in use during the civil war. The soldiers called their rough brogans hooves, whangs, tanyards, pontoons, ferry (or gun) boats, cowhide monitors or mud scows. A shoe cut for a right or left foot (they did have those during the civil war) was called a crooked shoe. To boot meant “in addition.” One in the same situation as another was standing in his boots (or shoes), while one replacing another stepped into his shoes. If someone who formerly gave was now receiving, the boot was on the other leg (compare the postwar “the shoe is on the other foot”).  One displaying fear was quaking (or trembling) in his shoes (or boots). One who thoroughly defeats another licked (or walloped) him out of his boots. One who cursed another vehemently cussed him clean out of his boots. Ejecting someone was booting him out while someone fired was given the boot. Seven-league boots was a preternatural ability to travel far and fast. For example, Longstreet must have had on seven-league boots when he shifted from virginia to georgia in 1863.

Some shoe-related phrases not proven to be used during the war (and which should therefore be eschewed) are boot licker, die with one’s boots on and pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

-By John A. Braden