The sutler was a civilian who was authorized to operate a store on or near a military camp, post, or fort. He could sell goods and items that were not considered necessary or supplied by the army. A sutler's inventory often included items such as tobacco, candy, manufactured clothes, hats, yard goods, cigars, tea, sardines, dried fish, alcohol, kitchen items, sewing needles, pins, and buttons. The sutler could sell just about anything in his store, but was expressly forbidden from selling ardent spirits (strong alcoholic beverages) to the enlisted men. Doing so could mean the loss of a sutler's license.
The prices he charged for these items were to be posted and were determined by a Council of Administration, which was made up of three officers (the commanding officer was not included on the council) plus a fourth who served as secretary. Because they approved prices and items, the sutler went out of his way to do favors for the officers and extended them liberal credit lines.
The sutler held a high social standing at the post and was on a par with the officers. He had no authority over the soldiers and was subject to military regulations. If there was an empty building on the post, the sutler could operate his store in it. He also had the options of building a store on the post. He was responsible for the maintenance of the building and also had to provide for his own upkeep.
The sutler was charged 15 cents per month for each soldier stationed there. This money went into a post fund, which was used to help widows and orphans of soldiers, and also assisted disabled or deranged officers and soldiers discharged without a pension (before the Civil War). It was also used for the education of soldiers' children at the post school, the purchase of books for the post library and the maintenance of a post band.
For these obligations, the sutler was granted exclusive trade rights with the post, the privilege of extending credit to the soldiers and was third in line at the pay table. Only debts due the government and the laundresses would be collected first. The sutler would inform the soldiers how much they owed and if there was a dispute, he had to present credit vouchers that supported his claims. A sutler could extend credit to only one-half of a soldier's salary per month. This system guaranteed the soldier would not be left broke when the paymaster came.
Extending credit was a risky proposition because of the high rate of desertion. A soldier could leave without paying his debts and since the desertion rate ran from 10%-25% per year, the sutler could go broke. The sutler could put in claims to the government to collect unpaid bills, but often the soldiers' names did not appear on the muster rolls and there was no way of verifying that the men whose names appeared on the credit vouchers were actually in the Army.
Corruption was common at all levels, from selling sutler licenses to officers taking bribes to keep prices high. One Civil War soldier considered his sutler to be, "a dirty rotten snake, I hope he gets smashed out of business-but not until I'm gone from here."
Written by staff at Fort Scott NHS.
Last updated: July 26, 2016