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The Sutler - Other People of the Civil War - The Participants of the War - Mikitary & Civilian - Civil War Interactive Discussion Board
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 Posted: Sat Dec 23rd, 2006 10:06 pm
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amhistoryguy
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I'm not a reenactor, but I do get to a reenactment at least once a year. My favorite place to go while there is "Sutler's Row." The books and trinkets that can be found there make the trip worthwhile in itself, not to mention the kettle corn and sarsaparilla.
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 CW 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 Billings "Hardtack & Coffee" and Bell Wiley's "The Life
of Billy Yank."

Regards, Dave Gorski



 Posted: Wed Dec 27th, 2006 01:59 pm
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Widow
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Dave, another of your delightfully instructive tidbits, researched with your usual meticulousness.

Yes, I too find sutlers' row a fascinating place to visit at a reenactment.  Usually some musicians are singing and picking.  Always there is food.  The smell of the leather goods.  The feel of the starched crinolines.  A banquet for the senses.

At a reenactment a sutler had a hand-lettered sign posted out front of his "funeral parlor."  It was a list of prices for his services.
  • Privates:  $5
  • Captains:  $10
  • Colonels:  $20
  • Yankees:  $25
Another sutler's signboard announced "Oxymoron Product, Fresh Hardtack."

The reenactment sutlers are good-natured and engaging, always ready to chat for a few moments, to answer questions, to show you something, and help you find what you're looking for.

Usually the soldiers considered the sutlers to be robbers and thieves, and occasionally got their revenge.  After a particular fight where a Federal camp was overrun and the sutler had to escape without his goods, the Rebel and Yankee soldiers stopped fighting each other in order to ransack the abandoned wagon.

Patty



 Posted: Wed Dec 27th, 2006 08:06 pm
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Johan Steele
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W/ very few exceptions I have little sympathy or respect for modern sutlers.  The quality of merchandise is generally abysmal.  As an example I give Boscabel... only two sutlers I thought offered quality products (I would consider their products high end mainstream).  I thought to buy a present for her at a ladies goods outfit.  Their service matched their prices; horrendous.  I saw very little there that my wife could not construct from Wal Mart material for 1/4 the price and still make a profit and frankly make it look far better than what I saw.

I've learned that a good measurement of the quality of a sutler/vendor is whether or not they are listed on the AC as an approved vendor.



 Posted: Thu Dec 28th, 2006 05:20 pm
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kiddycar
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Dave,

Although I consider myself a student of the Civil War, I never gave much thought to the subject of Sutler's.  Although I was familiar with the term, I had no idea they played so a prominent and important role in the Civil War.

Your post was enlightening, insightful, interesting, engaging and of course, educational.  You obviously are well versed on this subject and, I am sure, other subjects as well.

I am an officer in a cemetery association in Allentown, PA.  The Union and West End Cemetery is the final resting place for 715 Union Civil War veterans.  I created a web site to commemorate those Union warriors that are enterred in the cemetery.  You can find it here:

http://www.rootsweb.com/~paalncem/

I also have created a cemetery blog which covers the cemetery's history, current events, fund raising activities and such.  However, it also is a place where I attempt to bring the veterans that lie in repose in the cemetery to life; relating their war experiences and information about them after the war.

From time to time I include Civil War information unrelated to the cemetery.  I was fascinated by your post on "sutler's" and would like your permission to use excerpts from it in a future post on the cemetery blog.  I would, of course, give you full credit on the blog for any portions that I use.

Not sure exactly when I would use the material, but sometime in the not too distant future, if you grant permission.

Thanks for enlightening me!

Everette Carr

Allentown, PA 



 Posted: Thu Dec 28th, 2006 09:33 pm
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amhistoryguy
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Everette, Thank you for your kind words. I always appreciate hearing that something I've written struck a chord, or that it was found useful. Feel free to use the information as you see fit.

Regards, Dave Gorski



 Posted: Fri Apr 19th, 2013 05:46 pm
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Hellcat
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Widow wrote:
Another sutler's signboard announced "Oxymoron Product, Fresh Hardtack."



Wth some of what I've read concerning hardtack, I don't think that's an oxymoron product.



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