Saturday, May 26, 2007
The "real" sutler provided the soldier with far different comforts. The Civil War era sutler was a civilian merchant, licensed by the government to travel with and sell specific items to soldiers. The word 'sutler' comes from the early modern Dutch, word "soeteler" meaning "small tradesman," according to "Barnhart's "Dictionary of Etymology."
The sutler has been around in one form or another from the beginnings of organized warfare, primarily as a camp follower prior to the 1700's. During the American Civil War, Federal army regulations permitted the appointment of one sutler to each regiment. The regimental commander most often selected the unit's sutler, sometimes a hometown merchant, while others were licensed through political appointment.
The practices of the sutler were controlled by military regulations, and during the Civil War, included the prohibition of the sale of alcohol and the controlling of business hours. (During the American Revolution, General Washington had allowed one sutler per brigade to sell liquor at a fixed rate.)
Many Civil War regiments failed to enforce the regulations on a sutler's prices, as well as the liquor prohibition. Of 200 units inspected by the U. S. Sanitary Commission in 1861, 182 of them had a sutler. Garrison posts, prison camps and hospitals also were provided the benefit of the sutlers service.
The Confederate soldier doing business with prison sutlers often had this as their only contact with a sutler. Although authorized by the Confederate Congress, aside from an occasional wagon selling one or two items, (often only cider), Confederate sutlers were rare. In the Union camps, sutlers most often established themselves in large canvas tents. For security, the merchant usually slept inside with his goods. The sutler's goods included many items with which to supplement a rather bland soldier diet. Fruit, vegetables flour, sweets, were available, but often at prices only officers could afford.
The contents of the infamous "sutler's pie," usually 25 cents, became a subject of debate for years after the war "...moist and indigestible below, tough and indestructible above, with untold horrors within," writes John Billings in "Hardtack & Coffee."
Much needed stationary, pencils, paper, pipes, tobacco, playing cards, reading material and hundreds of other items were also available. Army regulation items such as socks, boots, and hats were also sold. A good many of the purchases the men made were on credit. The sutler would have a soldier sign a paymaster's order. This was a check made out to the sutler that authorized the paymaster to pay the sutler the value of the voucher directly. When the paymaster visited a regiment, the sutler had a seat right next to the paymaster where a good portion of a soldiers pay was turned right over to the merchant. Regulations called for the amount not to exceed one third of a soldier pay for a month, without the consent of the commanding officer, but many regiments did not follow these regulations, perhaps to avoid more paperwork.
The soldier was often given sutlers tokens in exchange for their voucher, eliminating the need for record keeping of purchases on credit, and guaranteeing the sutler would not lose money if a soldier were killed before payday. These imprinted metal tokens also insured that the soldier would do business only with his regimental sutler. Unscrupulous sutlers also used tokens for further profit, claiming not to have any change when tokens were used.
Reliable estimates indicates that the average Union soldier spent about $3.85 per month at the sutler and that the total gross earnings of Civil War sutlers exceeded 10 million dollars per year.
Next time you are at a reenactment, and you go down "sutlers row," you might think of them as something a little bit more than just refreshment and souvenir stands. For better or worse, they really were an important part of the common soldiers everyday life.
For some interesting reading on the subject, look for "Peddlers and Post Traders," by David M. Delo. There are also sections on sutlers that can be found in John Billing's "Hardtack & Coffee" and Bell Wiley's "The Life of Billy Yank."
The above article on 'Sutlers Row' was written by Dave Gorski; Dave is a talented and knowledgeable individual on the Civil War. The article is posted here with Dave's permission.
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