Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Army Sutler's Role in the Encampment -- an 1861 Description

  What was a sutler and what his role in Civil War camp life?  Here is an interesting first-person description of how the Army Sutler runs his business printed in the New York City Sunday Mercury Newspaper, September 29, 1861:

  The sutler’s tent is the same in all camps we ever visited.  Be it understood, for the benefit of those who are uniformed, that the sutler is the merchant of the regiment.  He sells lemonade, tobacco (in papers and plugs), cigars (of cabbage, oak leaves, or tobacco), red herrings, cracker, and molasses-cake.  He would sell whiskey if he dared.  His tent is always lumbered up with barrels and boxes, and at the customers’ end of it a board across two pork-barrels does duty for a counter.  Here the men come in crowds every hour in the day, to get some little delicacy (after salt fat pork and no vegetables, with the sun at ninety-eight degrees, even molasses-cake is a delicacy) to eat, or for a glass of cool lemonade to drink and make much of.
As the regiments are mostly supplied with water from muddy springs of their own digging (to prevent poisoning by our amiable Virginia neighbors); and as the sutler generally has the only ice in camp, a glass of even the sutler’s lemonade is a grateful beverage under the torrid circumstances.
The currency used by the sutler is paste-board tickets, representing respectively the value of five cents, ten cents, or twenty-five cents, payable in goods at the sutler’s store.  When a soldier desires to enter into commercial negations with the sutler, and has no money wherewith to achieve that mercantile desideratum, he naturally concludes to anticipate some portion of his pay.  He, therefore, obtains from his captain a printed order on the paymaster for one dollar or more, as the case may be, which is signed by himself, of course, as drawer of the order, and is then countersigned by the captain, as a guaranty that the sum of money called for in the order is actually due the man.  This document is now negotiable, and the sutler will take it and give for its “face,” not in money, but in tickets, which are simply due-bills on himself, which he binds himself to redeem in store goods.
All the goods are sold at his own prices; and as the tickets must eventually all find their way to his establishment, it follows that the office of regimental sutler usually pays better than that of major-general.  When pay-day comes round, the men, having spent all their tickets, have, as a general rule, little interest in the paymaster.  The sutler presents all the orders for pay which are in his possession, and from the paymaster received the gold.  This whole system is very objectionable and the French plan of paying the soldiers every ten days would be an infinite improvement.  As it is, the men do the work and dare the danger, while the sutler pockets the lion’s (or rather the sutler’s) share of the pay.
All sutler’s stores or tents are alike – are always thronged, and always making money.  There is usually a rear entrance for the officers, who are thus admitted behind the counter; and occasionally a sportive major takes a fancy to ride a frolicsome horse in the back door, and a smashing sensation is the result.
Though the sutlers are prohibited from selling spirits to the men, which rule they obey in most regiments, till, as a general thing, an officer need not languish for his liquor.  A colonel can have his cocktail, a major can procure his mint-julep, a captain his “cold without,” a lieutenant his “lemonade with,” and even a sergeant can procure his favorite “smash.”
But the whole sutler arrangement is bad, though it is so intimately connected with the system of army payments that a reform touching only the sutler’s department would be but half skin-deep.

Another description in a different Letter to the Editor by a different soldier tagged as being in the Ninth Regiment N.Y.S.M. at Camp Smith, Darnestown Maryland written Oct.5, 1861 and printed in the Sunday Mercury Oct.13th edition:

    Now for a few words for our sutler.  He is to outsiders a very pleasant man, but he has what the boys say "gone back on us."  His charges are outrageous, and what is still worse, he will not allow any outside peddler to come anyways near camp; so we are thus compelled to patronize him, and he has got us as his mercy.  We are unable to buy any luxuries from the farmers, as he buys up everything to supply the officers' table.  It would do you good to hear the boys grumble when pay-day comes.  As soon as they receive their hard-earned money from Uncle Sam, the sutler stands by the desk, and nine out of ten of the boys turn most of their money over to him to settle their accounts, and then commence grumbling; but there is no use of saying a word, as he will only tell that he don't care for you custom.  But, at the same time, he knows that he has got things most of the boys need, and so they are compelled to patronize him.

Background on the word “sutler”
Sutlers have been accompanying armies here since the colonial times during the French and Indian Wars, and before that in Europe.  Shakespeare has the character Pistol declare in Henry V (written in 1599) “For I shall sutler be, Unto the camp, and profits will accrue”.  Our English “sutler” comes from the Dutch word.  Merriam-Webster gives this background: “The Dutch adopted ‘soeteler’ from a Low German word meaning ‘sloppy worker,’ which itself traces to an even older verb that meant ‘to do sloppy work’ or ‘to dirty.’ Perhaps the snide designation was inspired by the fact that the traditional sutler followed troops and sold them supplies at hugely inflated prices.”
With the outbreak of the Civil War, “opportunities” or “needs” -- depending on how you want to describe it -- greatly increased because of the ever expanding size of the army as the war dragged on.  These were civilian merchants supplying non-military goods, both essentials like food variety and luxuries that were not supplied by the army for the soldiers on duty.  They could be located in a building at an established permanent military post.  Or if following a regiment in the field, they would typically set up a tent or even occasionally sell directly from their wagon if necessary.  The regulations over who could be a sutler and what they could do changed over the course of the war.  Typically, there was to be only one sutler per regiment or post.  And being a sutler meant you had to be in good with those in command of the unit.

Background Info on the New York City Sunday Mercury Newspaper
Started in 1840 the newspaper had achieved notoriety and circulation over the years to 145,000.  But when the war broke out it lost about 90,000 in the southern and western states subscriptions.  To help with the loss of circulation, the paper in April 1861 announced it would begin publishing letters and accounts sent to it from soldiers in the army, with a free copy being sent back to the soldier who contributes.  Over 3000 such contributions were printed during the course of the war, 1861-65.

I always find “first person” accounts interesting helps to “step back in time” with greater understanding.  Yet I also realize that different people can have different perceptions of the same event, so not everything they say is automatically “fact”.  Use these accounts to explore an aspect of history not typically described.
These 1861 articles are interesting descriptions of how sutlers operated their business.  You can sense from how the writers words that while sutlers were considered “necessary”, they were not “necessarily appreciated” because of 1) their pricing which took advantage of the soldiers, 2) the often poor quality of what was being sold, and 3) the double standard of service given to the men in the ranks vs. the treatment of the officers.
It is said that many sutlers setup their tents just outside the encampment so they could also service civilians nearby as well as offer “services” that were restricted within the encampment by regulations such as selling whiskey. 
Though the first 1861 letter above mentions that the sutlers used “paste-board tickets”, some would later on issue token coins like the one pictured below stamped with the regiment designation they were serving along with their business name and a trade value (5 cents, 10 cents etc).  From the description of how payment was made by credit from the soldier’s future pay, you can see how many men would be lured into making purchases that might not have been wise even though desirable on the impulse of the moment.

Children projects:  
1) Explore why it might not be wise for a soldier to spend money that he had not yet actually gotten even though his circumstances might pressure him to need/want to make purchases.  How is this like “credit” buying today?  Remember that most of these soldiers had a family at home that they were needing to support with the money they were being paid.
2) How would your child feel about needing to drinking muddy water with no ice on a hot day?  It’s an interesting little historical tidbit that gives insight into the pressure that a soldier back then had to face.  No bottled water.  No ice in the fridge.  Drink it anyway. . .
3) Explore the issue of “rank has its privileges” back in then, and today.  Talk through the writer’s clear condemnation as unfair that officers can buy drinks while the men in the ranks are prohibited from buying.