Quite often, folks ask us where we get our 'stuff'. We usually try to explain the concept of a sutler to them as someone that was contracted by the Government to sell items to the troops, and in this modern age, you can find them online. To make it easier, we have listed the folks below that we have bought from in the past and are pleased with.
I no longer shop at Fall Creek Sutlery or Blockade Runner, you may shop anywhere if you wish. As with all on line purchases, you do so at your own risk.
Sutlers were looked upon as a necessary evil by both Union and Confederate troops.
The sutler was a camp-follower civilian selling goods at high prices set by a committee of military unit officers, and who was doing so because he received a special appointment from the government, a governor or the brigade commander on the recommendation of the brigade's commissioned officers.
Sutlers sold all types of goods not provided by the government, and some goods that were provided but never arrived on time. They had few competitors because peddlers were not allowed in camp. But in towns, many commanders banned a sutler, allowing his men to purchase from the townspeople. In many cases, the men bought from the sutler or went without. But they weren't always satisfied. They claimed the prices were too high, weights short, and in many cases they had to use "chits" that were good only at the issuing sutler's tent.
In addition, military rule didn't allow a sutler to carry a soldier's debt to more than a third of the soldier's monthly pay. And the sutler got his money before the soldier was paid, directly from the paymaster. That's why sutlers always showed up on payday, but were noticeably absent when goods were short or their customers had used up their credit.
In addition, the sutlers were taxed by their unit, usually a percentage of their total month's business. This money went into special funds like the band, education of children born to members of the regiment, or to stock the regimental library. It also bought fruits and vegetables and special items for wounded members of the unit who were hospitalized.
When the troops were really upset, they would raid the sutler's tent, with no interference by superior officers.
One 1st Massachusetts Calvary member observed that "it is doubtful if the sutler in his regiment realized more than 300% profit."
In the main, sutlers were regarded as holding a semi-official position in their regiments and were subject to orders. The armies also moved their goods in government wagons, which didn't please commanders who needed the wagons and horses, and had to feed and maintain the horses. When the action got hot, the army also had the responsibility of moving the sutlers to the rear.
One sutler of the 1st New York Cavalry had been commissioned by the governor and thought himself a commissioned officers, so dressed like a field officers, minus the shoulder straps. One day on the road he met Gen. Phil Kearny, who was a stickler for officers dressing perfectly. He inquired of the sutler where his shoulder straps were, demanding to know his rank and regiment. The sutler explained that he was the sutler.
As Kearny's order reported, "Kearny fairly frothed at the mouth, and the atmosphere almost turned blue as the general shot out vocabulary of oaths newly coined for the occasion. He dismounted the sutler in knee-deep mud and made him good it back to the camp under the threat of putting a ball and chain on his leg."
The next morning the sutler was missing, and he didn't return from New York until he heard of Kearny's death at Chantilly.
Another sutler, Lt. J. Watts Robinson, was in the 1st U.S. Artillery when the war broke out. He was a Virginian and his wife a Northerner. He couldn't fight against Virginia, or the United States. He resigned his position and became a sutler at Fort Jefferson, Tortugas Island, and went through the war as a "neutral."
While the army had a weekly issue of meat, hardtack, flour, potatoes, beans, rice, coffee, sugar, vinegar and salt, much of the break or hardtack was wormy and the beef rotten. Instead o cooking for themselves, many soldiers threw away the rations and went to the 1860s version of the fast-food restaurant, the sutler.
Whereupon, according to one regimental surgeon, they would eat "villainous" pies fried in condemned lard a week before, resulting in camp diarrhea, dysentery and "all their concomitant evils." He wanted the government to compel the soldiers to live on government rations.
In Halltown, Va., a sutler sold cat and dog meat pies at 25 cents and ounce, but soldiers were reluctant to eat pieces from different pies at the same time, "fearing that the ingredients on coming together in one stomach would remember and revive their ancient feuds."
Federal families heard of the sutler effect on their loved ones and would send what amounted to care packages to their boys via the Adams Express Company, probably a forerunner of the UPS. If these packages were not stolen from the various warehouses in the North, the finally arrived at the proper destinations, but so late most of the food had spoiled.
Confederate units had their sutlers, but they were few and far between because the Confederacy suffered from an almost complete lack of items considered as sutler supplies during the war. Most goods for the Confederacy, civilian and military, were brought in by blockade runners.
Capt. Henry A. Castle of Co. A, 137th Illinois Infantry, described a sutler's inventory: "Effete cigars, bunch of grass filling wrapped in genuine Havanna onion leaves at Weathersfield, Conn.; rancid sardines, plug tobacco in advanced state of ossification; misfit imitations of standard monarchial beverages; wrinkled pocket mirrors, spoiled ink, spongy paper, eyeless needles, pointless pins, bologna sausages of the conglomerate era, petrified."
And yet, every soldier became accustomed to answering two basic questions, where his regiment was camped and where the sutler had set up his hut or tent.