Becoming “Amply Supplied with Very Good Shoes”

Winters for the Continental Army soldiers were brutal.  Although fighting usually ceased and the troops took up winter quarters, there was no break from military life.  In addition to freezing temperatures and food shortages, troops were plagued by inadequate uniforms, and especially a lack of decent shoes.  In December 1777, Brigadier General William Smallwood had an idea. He wrote to George Washington, lamenting how “the march of the troops…through the frosty roads, has cut out their shoes, and by being barefoot they are rendered unfit for duty.”  [1]

washington and troops at valley forge

The March to Valley Forge by William Trego, 1883 (Museum of the American Revolution).  The Continental Army arriving in Valley Forge in late 1777 wearing shoes and uniforms that had deteriorated because of harsh marching conditions.  

Maryland military leaders started making pleas for shoes as early as October 1776.  Purchasing shoes on the open market was not a perfect solution.  Shoes were very expensive, typically costing around $20, but sometimes as high as $50 per pair. Because of the war, demand for shoes increased, along with the prices.  Instead of purchasing them, Smallwood established a shoe factory in Newark, Delaware, not far from the Marylanders’ winter camp at Wilmington.  He requested “shoemakers and soldiers who are now…employed as guards, waiters, tradesmen or waggoners” to work at the factory.  [2]

One of the men sent to work at the factory was Private Clement Barber, a member of the famed Maryland 400.  Barber was one of the approximately thirty soldiers in the shoe factory.  Although some men were chosen because of their shoe-making skills, Smallwood called the others “mostly…[the] sorriest men” who were already doing the lowest tier of work in the army.  It is likely if these soldiers were able to fight, they would not have been making shoes. [3]

shoes

A typical pair of soldier’s shoes

Shoes in this time period were made straight and could be worn on either foot. Soldiers could switch which foot each shoe was worn on, allowing the shoes to wear evenly and last longer. They were made from leather which was cut into the proper shape using molds.  After the leather was sewn together, it was placed on top of another mold and the soles and heels were attached.  They were then dressed and waxed with a mixture of beeswax, bear grease, soot and lard. [4]

In January 1779, Smallwood wrote again to Washington requesting that he appoint an officer to “keep the men employed in the shoe factory at Newark in order.”  No matter what Smallwood or Washington thought of the men from the shoe factory, the troops were becoming “amply supplied with very good shoes” because of the factory. [5]

The shoe factory at Newark lasted until at least 1779.  Because the soldiers were marching almost constantly, their shoes wore out very quickly.  Therefore, supplying the army with shoes remained a challenge through the end of the war.

-Natalie Miller, Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution Research Fellow, 2017

Notes:

[1] “Brigadier General William Smallwood To George Washington, 28 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[2] “Brigadier General William Smallwood To George Washington, 28 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[3]  “Brigadier General William Smallwood To George Washington, 7 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[4] Harry Schenawolf, “Cordwainers & Cobblers in Colonial America,” Revolutionary War Journal, 8 March 2016; “Uniforms of the American Revolution,” Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, 30 October 2017.

[5] “Brigadier General William Smallwood To George Washington, 1 January 1779.”  Founders Online, National Archives.

 

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2 Responses to Becoming “Amply Supplied with Very Good Shoes”

  1. John Van de Kamp says:

    Thanks Natalie. Where did the leather, thread, etc come from. With a high demand for shoes, it must have been difficult to find reliable sources. These articles are great!

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    • Hi John. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! They bought supplies for the shoes from local vendors. The Maryland Council of Safety records includes some letters referencing this. For example, Nicholas Maccubbin wrote to the Council in February 1777 asking for permission to go to Baltimore in search for leather to use for shoes.

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