The Battle of Gettysburg-A Fight Over Shoes?
At 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1863 Major General Henry Heth and his division headed towards Gettysburg via the Chambersburg Pike. Heth was part of A.P. Hills corps. It was on the Chambersburg Pike that Heth's division encountered Lieutenant Marcellus Jones. Jones "took aim at an officer on a white or light gray horse and fired—the first shot at the battle of Gettysburg."
Many myths have surrounded why the battle of Gettysburg was fought. In this activity we are going to become historians, if only for a little while, to uncover differing perspectives on what really happened. What we have to remember is that history is accounts and memory of what happened and that historians try to get as close to the truth as possible. Sometimes this is difficult because there are two sides to the story. However, in this activity we will examine three sources, James McPherson's book Hallowed Ground, Ken Burn's documentary The Civil War, and the book largely based off of the documentary, The Civil War, by Geoffry Ward, Ric Burns and Ken Burns.
James McPherson notes of the shoe myth:
"This confrontation introduces the first of many supposed "myths" about Gettysburg that continue to provoke arguments to this day. Generations of historians—and battlefield guides—have said that the advance brigade of Heth's division was heading to Gettysburg to find a rumored supply of shoes in town. Young people especially are captivated by the story that the battle of Gettysburg started because of shoes. Recently, however, some historians have debunked this anecdote as a myth. There was no shoe factory or warehouse in Gettysburg, they point out; the twenty-two shoemakers listed in the 1860 census as living Gettysburg were barely sufficient to make or repair the footwear worn by county residents. And if there had been a surplus of shoes in town, they would have been cleaned out by Brigadier General Hohn Gordon's brigade of Major General Jubal Early's division when they came through Gettysburg five days earlier.
The shoe story, claim these historians, was concocted by General Heth to explain why he blundered into a firefight contrary to Lee's orders not to bring on a battle until the army was concentrated. Heth said that he thought the Union pickets he encountered on the Chambersburg Pikewere merely local militia who could be brushed aside, so he kept going to "get those shoes."
The revisionists have made one good point: there were no shoes in Gettysburg except those worn by the inhabitants still in town (many had fled). But that does not necessarily discredit the shoe story. The Confederates may well have thought there were shoes; several of them later said so. In any case, the anecdote serves an important purpose because it illustrates that the battle of Gettysburg began as a "meeting engagement," or "encounter engagement." Neither commander intended to fight at Gettysburg...
Now, Ken Burns, one of the preeminent Civil War historians, has a different approach to the story. In both his documentary and the book he collaborated on he states "The greatest battle ever fought on the North American continent began as a clash over shoes. There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes stored somewhere in the little crossroads town of Gettysburg, and at dawn on July 1 an infantry officer in Ewell's command led his men there to commandeer them for his footsore men."
So who do we believe? Which side of the story is true? Let's go to the source—a letter from General Heth to the Secretary Southern Historical Society regarding the invasion into Pennsylvania, June 1877:
I have stated above that General Lee's purpose in invading Pennsylvania was to break up the enemy's combinations, to draw him from our own territory, and to subsist his army on that of the enemy's. While this is true, his intention was to strike his enemy the very first available opportunity that offered--believing he could, when such an opportunity offered, crush him. And I here beg leave to differ from ----, when referring to the invasion of Pennsylvania, he says: "The proof is that as soon as the latter (Meade) began to move, Lee, who had undertaken nothing but a raid on too large a scale, found himself so much endangered that he was obliged to fight an offensive battle on the ground where Meade chose to await him." This determination to strike his enemy was not, from the position he found himself, consequent upon invasion, but from a leading characteristic of the man. General Lee, not excepting Jackson, was the most aggressive man in his army. This cannot and will not be contradicted, I am satisfied. General Lee had he seen fit, could have assumed a defensive position, and popular opinion in the Northern States would have forced the commander of the Federal army to attack.
And further, to corroborate the fact that General Lee was not compelled to attack Meade "where Meade chose to wait for him," I will show, I am confident, that the "Battle of Gettysburg" was the result purely of an accident, for which I am probably, more than anyone else, accountable. Napoleon is said to have remarked that "a dog fight might determine the result of a great battle." Almost as trivial a circumstance determined the battle of Gettysburg being fought at Gettysburg. It is well known that General Meade had chosen another point as his battlefield. On the 29th of June, 1863, General Lee's army was disposed as follows: Longstreet's corps, at or near Chambersburg; Ewell's corps, which had been pushed east as far as York, had received orders to countermarch and concentrate on Hill's corps, which lay on and at the base of South Mountain; the leading division (Heth's) occupying Cashtown, at the base of the mountain; the cavalry not heard from, probably at or near Carlisle. Hearing that a supply of shoes was to be obtained in Gettysburg, eight miles distant from Cashtown, and greatly needing shoes for my men, I directed General Pettigrew to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.
On the 30th of June General Pettigrew, with his brigade, went near Gettysburg, but did not enter the town, returning the same evening to Cashtown, reporting that he had not carried out my orders, as Gettysburg was occupied by the enemy's cavalry, and that some of his officers reported hearing drums beating on the farther side of the town; that under these circumstances he did not deem it advisable to enter Gettysburg. About this time General Hill rode up, and this information was given him. He remarked, the only force at Gettysburg is cavalry, probably a detachment of observation. I am just from General Lee, and the information he has from his scouts corroborates that I have received from mine--that is, the enemy are still at Middleburg, and have not yet struck their tents." I then said, if there is no objection, I will take my division to-morrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes! Hill replied, "None in the world."
On July 1st I moved my division from Cashtown in the direction of Gettysburg, reaching the heights, a mile (more or less) from the town, about 9 o'clock A. M. No opposition had been made and no enemy discovered. While the division was coming up I placed several batteries in position and shelled the woods to the right and left of the town. No reply was made. Two brigades were then deployed to the right and left of the railroad leading into Gettysburg, and, with the railroad as a point of direction, were ordered to advance and occupy Gettysburg. These brigades, on moving forward, soon struck the enemy, which proved to be Reynolds' corps of the Federal army, and were driven back with some loss. This was the first intimation that General Lee had that the enemy had moved from the point he supposed him to occupy, possibly thirty miles distant.
My division was then formed in a wooded ravine to the right of the railroad, the ground rising in front and in rear. The enemy was evidently in force in my front. General Rodes, commanding a division of Ewell's corps en route to Cashtown, was following a road running north of Gettysburg. Rodes hearing the firing at Gettysburg, faced by the left flank and approached the town. He soon became heavily engaged, and seeing this, I sought for and found General Lee. Saying to the General: "Rodes is very heavily engaged, had I not better attack?" General Lee replied: "No; I am not prepared to bring on a general engagement to-day-- Longstreet is not up." Returning to my division, I soon discovered that the enemy were moving troops from my front and pushing them against Rodes. I reported this fact to General Lee and again requested to be permitted to attack. Permission was given. My division numbered some seven thousand muskets. I found in my front a heavy skirmish line and two lines of battle. My division swept over these without halting. My loss was severe. In twenty-five minutes I lost twenty-seven hundred men, killed and wounded. The last I saw or remember of this day's fight was seeing the enemy in my front completely and utterly routed, and my division in hot pursuit. I was then shot and rendered insensible for some hours. I mention this attack, made by my division on the first of July, and its results, to show, as far as my observation and opinion goes, that ---- is wrong in supposing that the Federal troops at Gettysburg fought "ten times better than in Virginia." The Federal troops fought quite as well when we attacked them on the second day at Chancellorsville, and better on the 5th of May in the Wilderness, and again at Spotsylvania Courthouse. I speak, of course, of my individual experience and observation in those several engagements.*(*The sentimental idea desired to be conveyed by ----, in saying that "the Federal troops fought ten times better at Gettysburg than In Virginia," is based upon the supposition that troops are much more willing to die when fighting on their own soil and in its defense. Attacking a sentiment is not popular, I know. I am not singular, I am satisfied, In expressing the opinion that not one man in a thousand engaged in battle ever thinks what soil he is fighting on, but would rather be on any other soil than just that soil at that time. Far different emotions fill the breasts of men at such times. I confess I am matter-of-fact enough to believe that Leonidas and his celebrated three hundred would not have all died at Thermopylae but for the fact that they were surrounded and could not get away. Human nature was pretty much the same two thousand three Hundred and fifty-seven years ago as it is to-day. The part that the uninitiated would have sentiment to play in warfare is very sure to be eradicated by actual participation in such a war as raged in this country from 1860 to 1864.)
The fight at Gettysburg on July 1 was without order or system, the several divisions attacking the enemy in their front as they arrived on the field--nor do I see how there could have been a systematic plan of battle formed, as I have, I think, clearly shown that we accidentally stumbled into this fight.
Clearly, Heth's report reaffirms that the battle was an accident. In the report A.P. Hill even notes that there are "None in the world," referring that there was not a supply of shoes at Gettysburg.
Over the generations though, the story of shoes has caught the attention of many. The myth that the battle was fought over shoes seems to make the battle more fantastical. Rather than having precise military maneuvers the armies just met at the place to get supplies. For now, the controversy continues.
"Letter from Major-General Henry Heth, of A. P. Hill's Corps, A. N. V." Gettysburg Discussion Group. 8 Aug. 2007 <www.gdg.org/
McPherson, James. A Walk at Gettysburg Hollowed Ground. New York: Crown Publishers, 2003.
Ward, Geoffrey, Ric Burns, and Ken Burns. The Civil War. New York: Alfred A Knopp, Inc., 1990.Major General Henry Heth