On the Periphery of War: Sutlers, Luxuries, and the USCT

By Jon Danchik ‘17

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Sutler’s Token. This coin would be used as credit with a sutler, or vendor, who followed the Union Army, selling a range of luxury items from toothbrushes and soap to tobacco, cheese, and custom identification tags. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The Civil War caused an unmistakable strain on production and the allocation of resources in the North as well as the South. In order to keep armies in good order, a steady influx of supplies was needed, leading to shortages of food on the home front and in places like prisoner of war camps. The armies were typically well-fed, and many rations commonly consisted of small amounts of coffee, salt pork, and hardened bread called “hard-tack.” While enough to keep one from starvation, rations could hardly be described as appealing, and soldiers spent much of their time in camp devising new and innovative ways to make them more appetizing. Foraging for supplies yielded resources for combatant armies, but the practices of foraging depended on different commanders’ interpretations of official policies and unofficial social contracts. Soldiers were capable of living off of the land, and sometimes taking supplies from hapless farmers at the point of a bayonet was the only way to stay well-fed. Clearly the rationing system had its downsides.

Even colossal armies in the field could not escape the trappings of the American market economy. Independent vendors known as “sutlers” commonly followed armies and sold different luxury items to soldiers with the means to purchase them. If a soldier had the money, he could feast on a freshly-baked pie while his comrades dealt with hard-tack, occasionally distributed with unwelcome additions such as mold or maggots.

While many soldiers undoubtedly welcomed the company of sutlers, their presence eventually became a military concern. Before the beginning of the Overland Campaign in 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant dismissed sutlers from the camps of his armies in a series of orders meant to increase efficiency. While many of his own Federal soldiers were disappointed in losing easy access to luxuries, this order was also met with chagrin in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. In a letter to his mother, Confederate Brigadier General James Conner remarked that his men “had looked with so many fond anticipations to plundering the sutler wagons, that Grant’s order was regarded as cheating them of their just dues.”

Wartime and shortages often go hand in hand, and the Civil War was no exception. Food and raw resource shortages were certainly prevalent, but there was also a shortage of currency. Thus, sutlers independently minted their own coins for their transactions. Acts of Congress in 1864 eventually restricted private coinage, but from 1861 to 1864, most transactions with sutlers were made with nonstandard currency.  This also meant that any change a soldier received for a purchase could only be spent with that particular sutler.

This coin, found near Bermuda Hundred in Virginia, is for a sutler by the name of C.H. Smith—the only sutler who served United States Colored Troops. It bears the inscription of the 117th USCT, a unit that was present with the Federal Army of the James from the Siege of Petersburg to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, with later service further west until being mustered out in 1867.


Billings, John Davis. Hardtack and Coffee, Or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1887.

Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Westwood, Howard. Black Troops, White Commanders and Freedmen During the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

One thought on “On the Periphery of War: Sutlers, Luxuries, and the USCT”

Leave a Reply