History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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THE CIVIL WAR SUTLER

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     Sometime ago I was asked by a cousin what a Civil War "sutler" was. I gave her as my answer a mere explanation of the word. Thinking somewhat on this subject, I began exploring what the term actually meant. My dictionary states that a sutler is "a peddler who follows an army to sell goods and food to the soldiers." We shall now continue on this topic.

     The sutler was not an enlisted man, only a civilian. Army Regulations stated that sutlers could be appointed as one for every regiment, corps, or separate detachment, of course, with the approval from a higher authority. They made a business of suttling, or supplying food, and an assortment of other articles to the troops. He was a dry-goods dealer, a grocer, and provided other necessities that were likely to be called for in the service of the soldiers. His chief profession was keeping a stock of goods that answered the demands of the stomach. His line of canned goods were used mostly for the officers' messes. (The art of canning meats, fruits and vegetables was almost unheard of at the time.)

     The prices of the sutlers merchandise was in peace time very high, but in war time the demands of war were so inflated that the average private could not afford the inflationary costs unless he was the child of wealthy parents who could intermittently ship him some scrip or greenbacks. Pay for the average private was but thirteen dollars a month; his pay was raised to sixteen dollars a month on June 20, 1864. However, the paymaster had the authority of signing away the whole paycheck, perhaps three or four months worth, simply to settle claims the sutler had set upon them.

     Some prices the sutler received for his goods were: butter, which was many times rancid, one dollar a pound; cheese, fifty cents a pound; condensed milk, seventy cents a can; the blackest of tobacco, called 'navy tobacco', one dollar and a quarter a plug. The investment that seemed to pay the highest dividend to the purchaser was the 'molasses cake' or 'cookies.' These goodies were sold at a rate of six for a quarter. These delicacies were not considered too rich of a dessert to consume, especially when hardtack got to be a burden.

     (Army quartermasters were authorized to obtain their supplies from the sutler for the rank and file, which was written on a requisition given by the commander of a regiment of battery. The sutler also sold supplies for officers' messes at his cost, and also to members of the rank and file, if they presented an order signed by a commissioned officer.)

     Toward the end of the war sutlers kept self-rising flour, which they sold in packages of a few pounds. The men bought this product quite regularly to make pancakes and fritters. Mixing of this creation was a simple matter of adding water. The fun was in the turning. As one became experienced, he would give the frying pan a little toss upward and forward. This threw the cake out and over, to be caught again with the uncooked side down. Miscalculations frequently occurred, with many a cake being dropped into the fire, or taken off by a giant puff of wind just as it got edgewise in the air, and whipped into the dirt.

     One soldier told of the 'sutlers' pies.' They were most unforgettable. They were described as: "Moist and indigestible below, tough and indestructible above, with untold horrors within." Many a soldier guessed as to the ingredient, or ingredients, that they were made from. It mattered little to the sutler for the soldiers were used to mystery in all its forms. On the other hand, the pies were gulped down by the hundreds, price, twenty-five cents each.

     The sutler (sometimes termed an army merchant), as mentioned previously, was a dry-goods dealer. He dealt in army regulation hats, cavalry boots, flannels, socks, and suspenders, to name a few. This wheeler-dealer was not allowed to deal in liquors, and, if caught, he would lose his permit to deal with the troops.

     The sutler did not always receive the recognition he so deserved. He filled a need, if not a necessity, at military posts and in campaigns where he was considered an essential convenience. The soldier was not compelled to patronize him, however, it is common knowledge that nearly soldier maintained some sort of an association with him because of the services he provided.

     There were undoubtedly 'crooked sutlers', they occasionally having a hard time of it. More often than not, they were always in the reaches of being 'cleaned out' or 'raided.' There were secret organizations within the regimental troops who would fall upon a sutler in the darkness of night, throw down his tent, help themselves to whatever they wanted, and then steal quietly back quietly to quarters. Stolen goods within the tents was a no-no, for the next day the sutler, accompanied by a detachment of men, began searching the tents for the stolen loot. If the guilty parties were caught they were quietly reminded that if they were foolish enough to get caught they would suffer the penalty.

     The sutler profited by his experiences, and, if they had faults, they soon mended them. And-so, late in the war they rarely found it necessary to beg liberation from their friends.

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