Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Sutlers

By Matthew Pizzolato

A sutler's tent during the
Battle of Petersburg
Sutlery during the Civil War highlights one of the vast differences between the availability of supplies in the Union and Confederacy.  The majority of Union regiments were appointed their own sutlers, while very few Confederate regiments had one.  There were sutlers in the South, but they were rare. 

Sutlers provided a valuable service for the soldiers during the War, but there were regarded as more of a necessary evil.  The line of tents where the sutlers set up shop was often referred to as Robber's Row.

They made goods available that weren't provided by the Army.  They were authorized to sell goods on credit but weren't allowed to issue credit that exceeded one-third of a man's monthly pay without the permission of a commanding officer.  Pay for a Union private during the war was exactly $13.00 per month. 

Whenever the paymaster showed up, the sutler set up a table next to his and a large portion of the payroll went directly to the sutler. 

The goods that the sutlers provided included grocery items like eggs, fruit, butter, cheese, and fresh or canned meat.  They also provided dry goods such as playing cards, stationary, needles and thread, toothbrushes, straight razors and everyday items that couldn't be done without. 

The sale of liquor was forbidden but creative sutlers dropped sliced peaches into their whiskey bottles and would sell "pickled peaches." 

Prices were set by the Inspector General Department, but most of the enlisted men couldn't afford the nicer items.  As a way of increasing profits, a lot of sutlers issued change in scrip or tokens that were only redeemable at their establishments.

Sutler's Row at the reenactments of today is an entirely different animal.  By necessity, they cater to both the reenactors and the spectators.  There are modern day foods available as well as toys for the folks who bring their children out to watch. 

The majority of what they sell are period items ranging from any type of clothing to any type of firearm and everything in between. 

The sutlers are the equivalent of "going to town" during a reenactment.  It's one of the ways we pass the time before or after a battle.  

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw as well as his newest release, Two of a Kind.

Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter @mattpizzolato.


  1. Matt, this is just fascinating. I had no idea. I love learning about these Civil War facts in your re-enacting posts.

  2. Thanks, Matt. You're CW re-enactment series is fascinating. :)

    1. You bet, Jacquie. It's good to know folks enjoy the posts.

  3. Very interesting, Matt. Pickled peaches! I love that ploy.

  4. Thanks for an informative post - always useful stuff in this here blog!

  5. Robber's Row, HA! I knew sutlers had the soldiers by the... er, ahem. Good thing your friends and folks coming to reenactments aren't robbed blind the same way. ;-)