For Want of a Shoe – Henry Burden keeps the Union Cavalry in the field

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost

For want of a shoe a horse was lost”

This well-known proverb, which continues for several more lines, and ends with the loss of a kingdom, reportedly dates back several centuries, and an internet search as to how the proverb has been used over the years, and continues to be used, is enlightening.  However, the practical applications, as well as the business applications, of the proverb in the era when horses and mules provided most of an army’s mobility, should be obvious to all.

By one estimate, the Union army purchased 650,000 horses during the war, and seized or otherwise acquired another 75,000 horses in the field.  The number of mules supplied to the army carried total purchases to more than one million animals, at an estimated expense of 95 million dollars.  When other costs are factored in, including equipment, food and transportation, the army spent 125 million dollars on mounted troops in 1864 alone, or nearly two billion in 2016 dollars.  Horseshoes and horseshoe nails accounted for two of the additional expenses, and when one considers the durability of shoes and nails, or lack thereof, especially during periods of heavy campaigning, the importance of a reliable supplier of quality shoes and nails should also be obvious.  Enter Henry Burden.

square_gallery_thumb[1]Henry Burden

Born in 1791, near Dunblane, Scotland, Henry Burden, fascinated by math, drawing and the science of how tools and farm implements worked, earned a degree in engineering from the University of Edinburgh.  Arriving in America in 1819, Burden designed or improved several farm implements, including the plow, before accepting a position at the Troy Iron and Nail Factory, in upstate New York.  As Childs Burden, Henry’s great great-grandson explains, Henry accepted a contract which encouraged him to put his active mind to work for the benefit of both the company and himself.  “If you create anything of value,” the owner told Henry, “We’ll pay to manufacture but all profits go to the company.  However, if the product has legs in the market…we’ll start giving you shares of these profits to buy shares of the company.  If…successful you’ll eventually be able to buy us all out and run the company yourself.  And that’s exactly what Henry did.”  By 1849, Henry Burden, having invented a machine to mass produce railroad spikes and another machine to produce horseshoes, owned the entire company.  The Troy Iron and Nail Factory became the Burden Iron Works, and Henry soon established the corporate empire Henry Burden & Sons.

Henry Burden first approached the army in April 1857, with an offer to provide horse and mule shoes.  As a businessman, Burden appreciated the relationship between good communications and steady sales.  In May, he updated Quartermaster General Thomas Jesup on the progress of the contract which Jesup had apparently signed, telling the general confidently,  “The horse shoes we are making for you as a whole are, we are confident, far superior to any ever used in the service.”  After proudly touting the quality of the kegs in which the shoes were packed, Burden also told Jesup, “The subject of horse nails has…our attention, and we are thoroughly investigating it.”  The nature of the concern is unknown, but Burden promised to “soon…lay before you the results of our labors.”

The following year, Burden thanked Jesup for forwarding a complaint regarding the shoes “we have been manufacturing for the department.”  The army provided measurements for the shoes required, and Burden then determined the best locations for the necessary “grooves and holes.”  The complaint may have concerned the placement of these groves and holes, but also touched on the quality of the iron used.  Admitting to having “worked the iron… at too low a temperature,” Burden told Jesup he had already corrected the problem, and was now “confident the shoes we have been furnishing of late will be entirely free from the objections noticed.”  The company shipped at least five orders to the army in the spring of 1858, including 100,000 shoes to St. Louis in May.

Though now very successful, Henry Burden was not the only manufacturer of horseshoes and nails as the nation rushed to war.  Moreover, most every quartermaster, as well as every farrier or blacksmith in the army, had their own personal preference as to which companies produced the best shoes and nails.  By way of example, in January 1860, an officer in New Mexico Territory trumpeted the nails made by the American Horse Nail Company in Providence, Rhode Island, as superior to the ‘Griffin Nails’ made by the Withymoor Works, in Dudley, England.  An officer at Fort Smith, Arkansas, disagreed, denigrating the nails from the American Horse Nail Company as “not worth their transportation,” and hailing the ‘Griffin Nails,’ as “decidedly the best nail I have ever seen.”

Following the outbreak of the war, and facing stiff competition for lucrative government contracts, Burden introduced himself, his company and his products to Montgomery Meigs, the army’s new Quartermaster General.  “We…have a capacity for making 50,000 perfect shoes per day,” Burden told Meigs, and now have “on hand over 1000 tons of assorted sizes of the most approved form and made from a very superior quality of iron.  Any one of our shoes can be bent double cold without cracking.”  Confident his products were “more uniform and perfect than handmade shoes,” Burden also assured the general, “they will wear longer [than handmade shoes] and will not break.”

Having supplied nearly one million horseshoes to the government since 1857, Burden reminded Meigs of his policy to “exchange shoes…at our own expense, voluntarily furnishing our more recent and improved patterns…when those which we took away were entirely satisfactory in quality to the quartermasters at those posts.”  In addition to competition from other producers, Burden now competed with wholesalers, or brokers, who offered the government products from several companies.  Seeking to maintain his long-term relationship with the government, in the face of increasing competition, Burden counseled Meigs to “always seek to purchase…‘from first hands’ and direct from the manufacturer,” as opposed to buying from a broker.

Faced with providing the best product at the best price, Meigs continually queried his subordinates in the field as to the quality of the products purchased for the army.  In July 1862, Capt. James J. Dana denounced shoes provided by a Baltimore company as “of inferior material and workmanship,” and hailed “the Burden shoe” as “the only shoe which should be used.”


Several of Burden’s stiffest competitors were also his neighbors, including Bussing & Crocker and Corning & Winslow, both of Troy, New York.  Henry Burden’s relationship with Erastus Corning and John Winslow had been contentious for years, and the companies had already faced each other in court several times, as Burden sought to protect his patent rights.

With demand skyrocketing as the army, especially the cavalry, expanded, all of these companies struggled to meet their contracts.  In August 1862, Corning & Winslow, which had supplied much of the iron plate for the Monitor, actually asked the army to release half of its order for shoes “to other manufacturers.”  Busing & Crocker, more of a “distributing agent” for Corning & Winslow, than a producer of their own products, had their contract revoked by the army in August 1862 due to the company’s inability to satisfy their agreements in a timely manner.  Seeking to convince the army to “revoke your revocation,” a Busing & Crocker official explained how the company did not yet have the business to allow “for accumulation” of product, but was trying to increase capacity and hoped to soon be able to “supply within limits…three to four thousand kegs [of shoes] per month.”  The American Horse Nail Company also had difficulty satisfying their contracts in August.

As producers struggled to meet increasing demands for shoes and nails, so too cavalry commanders and regimental quartermasters struggled to keep their animals shod and healthy.  In February 1862, Maj. Alfred Duffie, 2nd New York Cavalry, badgered his colonel for shoes “or my horses will be lame and unfit for service.”  By the end of the year, with new mounted regiments still entering the service, Col. Josiah Kellogg, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, begged for forges so his farriers could shoe his animals before they went lame.

Demand for horseshoes continued to rise in 1863 as commanders, like Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis, recognized the benefit of each trooper carrying additional horseshoes while in the field.  “Each man will be supplied with two fitted horse shoes and a proportionate amount of nails, which will be carried in the shoe pouches,” Davis ordered.  “These extra shoes will not be used while the regiment remains in camp but will be reserved exclusively for the march.”  In Michigan, farriers for the 7th Michigan Cavalry shod 400 horses a day in March, as the new regiment prepared to depart the state.  In April, as the Cavalry Corps made ready for the spring campaign, Colonel Davis ordered his “blacksmiths [to] work day & night to have their horses shod up and a sufficient amount of extra shoes fitted to give every man two, which, with a proportionate amount of nails, will be carried in the saddle bags.”  Just two weeks later, and with his troopers chasing guerrillas while waiting for the roads to dry and the flooded Rappahannock River to subside, General Stoneman ordered 5000 shoes to be brought out to him to replace those already lost or worn out.

The Stoneman Raid cost the cavalry 6,000 horses, many lamed by the loss of shoes.  Quartermasters in Alexandria loaded a supply of replacement shoes aboard a train bound for John Buford’s Reserve Brigade, but on May 30, John Mosby derailed the train near Warrenton Junction and burned the cars.  With Buford’s horses still in need of the shoes, and overall demand for horseshoes especially acute, a quartermaster asked one of his subordinates to see if the shoes and nails might be recovered.  “It is believed that they must be lying about the road near where the cars were burnt.  Send a messenger out to see and collect them if possible,” the officer ordered.

When the Army of the Potomac began pursuing Lee in mid-June, more than 1,000 horses waited for shoes at three remount corrals near Falmouth.  In the rush to evacuate those facilities, quartermasters sent all of the horses north to Alexandria to be shod, costing Alfred Pleasonton the equivalent of an entire brigade during the furious fighting in the Loudoun Valley.  On June 19, while his men clashed with Stuart’s troopers near Middleburg, Pleasonton ordered “ten blacksmiths and…ten portable forges with tools complete…for shoeing horses and ten thousand horse shoes with proportional quantity of nails” to replace shoes already lost on the hard, macadamized turnpikes.  As soon as the guns fell silent on June 22, Pleasonton again ordered his commanders to have their horses shod, but picket duty in the face of the enemy, as well as counter-guerrilla details and other responsibilities limited the number of men who could actually comply.  On June 25, a quartermaster reminded one of Pleasonton’s division commanders, “I have three forges ready… for your division. But few horses were sent forward yesterday and none today. I beg you will have those needing shoeing sent forward to me by regiments in the order you wish to have them shod. Let one come immediately and the officers in charge of those to follow report to me that I may tell them where to come,” the officer urged.  Beyond the needs of the Cavalry Corps, quartermasters also sent 23 kegs of shoes to meet the army at Edward’s Ferry on June 26, with another ten kegs still to be shipped.

33506r[1]Farriers at the Cavalry Depot, Library of Congress

Few official Southern sources survive for the same period, but in his report of the Gettysburg campaign Col. R. Lindsay Walker, A. P. Hill’s artillery chief, noted, “The horses of the command suffered severely…for the want of shoes… I am satisfied,” Walker continued, “that most of the horses lost on the march were lost…because of their lameness in traveling over turnpikes…without shoes.”  Colonel Walker believed the lack of replacement shoes cost his command alone $150,000 worth of animals.

By the end of 1863, Henry Burden, offering his shoes at eight cents per pound for horses and ten cents per pound for mules, hoped to garner a contract for a steady $10,000 worth of business per month.  He had by then begun either acquiring his own iron ore pits in southern Vermont, or leasing ore pits, and rather than shipping the ore back to Troy, he entered into an agreement by which a furnace would be built nearby.  Seeking a contract with Maj. Stewart Van Vliet, Assistant Quartermaster in New York, Burden admitted his only concern was transportation, as the Hudson River Railroad could not supply enough cars to move his orders on time.  Still, Van Vliet, believing the Burden shoe “the best shoe manufactured,” sought permission to grant Burden the contract rather than advertising for bids.  Concurring with Van Vliet’s opinion, that Burden’s shoes “are superior to all others,” Capt. Charles Tompkins, Assistant Quartermaster in Washington, recognized the “unmistakable economy to the Government to purchase [Burden’s shoes] exclusively.”

Wartime demand for the Burden shoe peaked in 1864, with revenues from the sale of horseshoes and nails alone reaching nearly 1.5 million dollars, or 23 million dollars today.  Over the next twenty years, company revenues from the sale of horseshoes waxed and waned, peaking in 1872 and again in 1882.

Henry Burden passed away at his home in Troy on January 19, 1871.  For several years prior to his death, his sons James and Townsend had conducted most of the day-to-day operations for the company, known since 1864 as H. Burden & Sons.  Like their father, neither son took the good reputation of the company for granted.  In January 1876, a company representative, possibly James or Townsend, wrote the following letter to a quartermaster at Philadelphia.  Though probably written as a means of securing a new contract, the missive serves historians, 141 years later, as a reminder of the impact Henry Burden had on the military in general, and the Union cavalry in particular, during the Civil War.

“The records will show that we are the oldest manufacturers of machine made horse shoes in the world.  We were the first to perfect a machine which would make horse shoes successfully, and have been engaged in the manufacture of horse & mule shoes for 45 years.  The popularity of our shoe is shown by the fact that our yearly product of horse & mule shoes exceeds that of all other makers combined.

Regarding our capacity for executing orders – we would state, that each of our horse shoe machines makes sixty shoes per minute – that we employ 1,400 hands, that the entire capacity of our works is nearly 40,000 tons per annum – and that we generally have on hand, ready for shipment, a stock of shoes amounting to 5,000 tons or say 100,000 kegs.  Our ample facilities for supplying shoes promptly were found to be of great service to the government during the Mexican War, and more especially during the War of the Rebellion, when the supplies of this article were required almost at a moment’s notice, particularly at the commencement of the war.  We have since been informed by army officers, high in position, that many important movements would have been seriously retarded had not our ample capacity for making & shipping horse shoes insured a prompt supply of this article.

On our machines, we can make almost any size or shape of shoe.  Regarding the proper requisites of a shoe in this respect – opinions are various & exceedingly numerous.  Each horseshoer has a fancy in the matter, and not many agree with one another on the different points.  We have in our possession samples of handmade horse shoes gathered from all parts of the country, and intended by their makers to employ their ideas of a horse shoe.  The contrast between the various shoes is remarkable.

Our popular government pattern (of which you have a complete set of samples) suits the great majority of consumers, and is the favorite shoe in the West, South and portions of the East.  The “Swaged” shoe …is intended for the East.  We can furnish you with either pattern.  In New York City our horse shoes are used on all the horse railways, with one or two exceptions.  They are not so extensively used on the horse railroads in Philadelphia owing to commercial reasons which need not be mentioned.

We ought to add that during the entire process of manufacturing, from first to last, the greatest care is exercised by us to insure superiority of quality.  We make our own pig iron, and manufacture our own horse shoe iron.  At every step of the process there is rigid inspection.  No imperfect shoes will be found in our kegs.  As a proof of the superior quality of our iron, we would point to the fact that in the markets where it is sold, it commands a price of $38 to $48 per ton higher than the price of ordinary irons.  Please note the “Burden Best,” and ordinary iron in enclosed price lists issued by merchants in N.Y. & Boston.  The price obtained by the dealers for our iron is exceeded only by that obtained by Norway.”


Eight years after their father’s death, James and Townsend began to sell off some of their facilities in Vermont in the face of a declining market.  The business, last known as the Burden Iron Company closed its doors for the final time in 1940.  Today, little remains of the once massive complex, though the building where Burden’s employees turned out millions of horseshoes still stands, awaiting renovation, and the former office building now houses the Burden Iron Works Museum.


With special thanks to Childs Burden



Documents from the National Archives

Documents and family material provided by Childs Burden

David J. Gerleman, Unchronicled Heroes: A Study of Union Cavalry Horses in the Eastern Theater, Care, Treatment, and Use, 1861-1865, Ph.D. Thesis, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1999

Victor R. Rolando, “The Industrial Archeology of Henry Burden & Sons Ironworks in Southwestern Vermont,” The Journal of Vermont Archaeology, Volume 8, 2007

4 thoughts on “For Want of a Shoe – Henry Burden keeps the Union Cavalry in the field

  1. As near as I can determine the average keg of horseshoes weighed 100 lbs., so not including the weight of the kegs themselves a boxcar carrying 9 tons of materiel might carry about 180 kegs, if my math is correct, but I do not know how many horseshoes filled a 100lb. keg. And, of course, shoes needed an appropriate number of nails sent along as well. Buford would not have needed shoes for more than 1000 horses, and the kegs the QM sought to recover would have been only part of a carload of materiel, but probably the only re-supply item that would have survived a fire.
    By comparison, on July 15 a QM in Maryland ordered 200 kegs of horseshoes, 100 kegs of muleshoes and 4,000lbs. of nails or several carloads of just shoes and nails


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