Most people are surprised to learn that the Bureau of Missing Socks began as
a company in the Union Army during the Civil War. It was formed on August 1st,
1861, not too long after the disaster that was the First Battle of Bull
General McClellan was trying to reform the dispirited Union troops, a
Connecticut businessman bought a major’s commission in the 5th
Connecticut Regiment at the suggestion of his father-in-law who advanced the
money. His name was Joseph Smithson and he was a haberdasher by trade. It was
soon decided that his skills were better put to serve his country in the
Quartermaster Corps after Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton saw him drilling his
troops. What may have brought him to Stanton’s attention was his high-pitched
voice and bad riding posture. These and some other defects in his personality
were turned into assets when he was assigned to the footwear division, Army of
the Potomac, supply, where, after a short assessment of his capabilities, he was
put in full and complete charge of socks, enlisted and officer.
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Normally, a low profile posting, Major Smithson’s administration of the section was soon noticed by the nation at large and was a favorite subject of conversation of the Confederates especially when the war started going bad for the south. He brought to the army the same skills at stock keeping, purchasing, accounting, and salesmanship that he had practiced at his father-in-law’s haberdashery in Hartford, Connecticut. He immediately instituted a cost control structure and created one of the most honest, tightly run purchasing sections serving the Union side during the entire conflict.
Major Smithson’s first concern was not buying new socks for the army but maintaining and repairing the ones on the feet of the soldiers. He was the force behind General Order 48904S that required that each member of the North’s forces turn in a used sock before receiving a new one. "Hell!" he was quoted as saying, "they don’t wear out at the same rate. Why should we waste perfectly good single socks." The General Order was cancelled a week later by the War Department possibly at the instigation of New England mill owners who feared that their business with the army would be cut in half.
To counteract the war profiteers, Major Smithson tried to implement General Order 48906S which required that each soldier turn in a full pair of socks before receiving a new one and document all those missing. That was when he discovered that most of troops only lost one sock at a time. His first brush with the missing sock phenomenon. He assigned two junior officers, Lieutenants Blake and Thompson, to investigate. His subordinates were more interested in participating directly in the war and immediately asked to be transferred to a combat post. Major Smithson tried to crack the puzzle alone but his other duties did not allow him time for a proper effort. He appealed directly to the White House for funds to hire Pinkertons for the job but was turned down even though he was sure it was a Confederate conspiracy
He was, however, able to institute his doctrine of field repair and replacement creating the first and only sock darning, knitting, and issuing company in the United States Army trained to operate directly behind the front lines. Secretary Stanton and President Lincoln tried to have the unit disbanded and Smithson cashiered but the Union generals held forth. They ordered the establishment of three more companies as they found them a perfect venue for assigning officers junior who didn’t come up to their expectations or otherwise under performed. The units became a catchall for enlisted men short of court martial and suffered the highest rate of casualties from darning needle punctures then any other unit in both the Confederate and Union forces.
Even though beset by inferior personnel not of his choosing, Major Smithson pressed on. When he couldn’t be supplied with darning eggs because all of the northern manufacturers had switched over to weaponry at the outset of the war he found a supplier in England who also provided him with needles. He then rethought the basic concept and created the first Field Sock Darning Kit. He further upset his superior officers and the powers in Washington D.C. when, realizing that the men under his command would never become adept at darning, advocated the integration of women into the armed services. With support only from Major General Joseph Hooker the cause was hopeless.
At the cessation of hostilities on April 9, 1865, Major Smithson was work on an automatic sock darning machine but returned to Hartford at the behest of his wife when her father passed away. He was torn between his duties at the haberdashery and his quest to solve the mystery of the single, missing sock. The conflict took his mind away from business and the store soon went bankrupt. He died shortly afterwards, a broken man. His statue now stands in the north plaza of the Bureau’s headquarters where our staffers like feed the pigeons during their daily breaks. There is another statue of him in Hartford, Connecticut, which has been warehoused there since 1906 until the city finds a suitable place for its display.
His unit, nicknamed "The Darners", was some how overlooked in the general demobilization after the war. Its last surviving veteran, Lewis Freedman, went to his glory in 1936. It wasn’t until President Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated on March 4, 1869 that attention was paid to what would later become the Bureau of Missing Socks. It caught the eye of Secretary of War William W. Belknap who had it transferred to civilian control where it immediately came under the grip of a group of corrupt officials and businessmen known as the Whisky Ring. They increased its staff to over a thousand and its budget a thousand fold. It became the sole purchasing agent for all the socks worn by the uniformed services. The wholesale corruption of the Whisky Ring was uncovered in 1875 and its members sent to jail. In the house cleaning following the scandal all of its procurement powers were taken away. Secretary of War William W. Belknap was later impeached for taking bribes from Indian agents. One good thing did come out of the corruption surrounding the Grant administration. The United States Government had purchased enough socks in three years to equip all the armies in World War 1 and 2.
In fact, each recruit in the Spanish American War was issued twelve pairs. Our black powder Springfields may have been outgunned by their modern German Mausers but we out socked them. It was during this conflict that we received our first official investigative assignment. Many of troops were losing all of their government issued socks. We dispatched teams to all the combat theaters to unravel the problem. The problem was less perplexing than at first thought. It was soon discovered that the soldiers were trading them to Latin American and Filipino prostitutes for certain sexual favors. It was during this period in our history that the phrase "Sock it to me" was coined and not on the Television Show "Laugh In" as commonly thought.
We entered World War I confidant that our troops were this best shod in the world but it was soon discovered that the typical doughboy was on the average five inches taller than his counterpart in the Eighteen Seventies and our country’s vast stock pile of socks were too small. More had to be ordered. But the warehouses full of hosiery that we controlled were put to good use and then some after World War II.
It was that conflict that brought us to where we are today. The Bureau had absolutely nothing to do. Most of its employees were dismissed or transferred to more meaningful defense work. But due to some oversight our budget was not curtailed. In fact, it was increased, because our director at that time, Harrison L. Lawson, used the all available funds to hire the best lobbyist in Washington and invest in the careers of promising politicians on the national level. In four short years our future was secured and the Bureau began to grow to what it is today. And -- our vast stockpiles of socks were finally put to use as part of the Marshall Plan. No European on this side of the Iron Curtain during that late Nineteen Forties and early Fifties had to worry about cold feet in the winter if they were size seven or less.
The Bureau came to the forefront again during the Cold War. It is a now it can be told story. An agent planted deep in the Soviet Intelligence service learned that Stalin himself was deeply concerned with our activities. He did not believe that we were really a civilian agency but a cover for the manufacture of a new and powerful weapon that the Soviet Union could not duplicate. He ordered that the KGB to penetrate our facilities no matter what the cost in manpower and money.
The Central Intelligence Agency jumped to the gun. The Bureau (still just the Bureau of Socks) budget was again increased, as was its manpower. Our new facilities were constructed on the shores of the Potomac river and appeared to be the most imposing in Washington, D.C. although they lacked such amenities as interior walls, elevators, heating, air conditioners, and elevators. Radio, cable, mail and messenger traffic was increased to exceed that of any other government agency. Suspected moles were encouraged to sign on and cryptologists on our staff devised a new code name Argyle which no one could decipher even the creators. It was discovered that at least sixty percent of the Soviet Union’s spy budget was directed against the Bureau during this period. Stalin and his immediate successors so feared our organization that we, not the White House, not the Pentagon, not the Strategic Air Command, were the prime target of all eastern block nuclear missiles.
On the 9th of November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. With the break up of the Communist Monopoly that year our existence was again challenged. We hung on until 1994. The year that descendants of Major Smithson donated his papers to the Library of Congress where they could have moldered for years without anybody paying attention to them. . Fate came to our rescue when they were discarded by mistake and found by our head of research J. P. Conway in a Dumpster. He immediately read them to our Director Orlando Brown who exclaimed "Our mission from here to eternity, if need be, is the solving of the mystery of the disappearing single sock."
THE BUREAU TODAY
The Bureau of Missing Socks is the only organization in the world devoted solely to unraveling the mystery of the single disappearing sock. It is an arm of the United States government no less important than the State Department and Department of Defense. Its existence up to this time has been a well-guarded secret but since it takes such a big bite out of your tax dollar it’s time that you know how it is being spent.
Its headquarters are located on a bluff high above the Potomac River in Washington, D. C. in a twenty four acre office park divided into four distinct areas. The campus containing administrative, research, data and laboratory facilities, the Museum (which is the only area of our installation open to the general public), the SWAT team training area, containing the high risk experimentation area, and the director’s residence compound.