Sunday, February 23, 2020

Civil War Scrip: 27th USCI Sutler's Token

For some, the Civil War offered the potential opportunity to make money. A recent study shows that many more men than once thought were likely motivated to enlist due to economic reasons than from patriotic or altruistic reasons. Manufacturers, both North and South, sought out lucrative government contracts and changed their lines of products from peace time goods to equipment and weapons of war in order to cash in. Merchants, too, jumped on the military bandwagon. And some rode it for all it was worth.

In the collections of Pamplin Historical Park and National Museum of the Civil War Soldier are some artifacts that provide evidence of the greed of the era. These artifacts are in the form of sutler tokens. The example shown here is valued at $.25 and issued to men in the 27th United States Colored Infantry (USCI).

Civil War sutlers, in effect, served as that era’s base commissary and post exchange; at least a mobile version of it. These civilian traders, operating with the army’s approval, sold items that the soldiers often needed most, had a difficult time obtaining, or required quickly. Sutlers, offered a virtual general store. They sold things like underwear, socks, pens and ink, cheap books, magazines, and newspapers, razors, and various types of foodstuffs, among hundreds of other items. Sometimes sutlers vended prohibited items, such as alcohol, too. After all, their sole reason for their being with the army was to make a profit.

As one might image, soldiers sometimes resented sutler’s high prices and their questionable quality in goods. Some soldiers applied the less than complementary title of “skinners” to sutlers, due to these seller’s ability to “fleece” their patrons. It was not an uncommon occurrence for individuals and groups of soldiers to thieve or raid a sutler’s stock as a way to retaliate.

Often Civil War soldiers received their supposed monthly pay on an inconsistent basis. In order to increase the chance of soldiers purchasing items from their stock of goods, sutlers minted tokens as a way of extending credit. Since soldiers received their pay infrequently a man could go to the sutler and ask for credit. The sutler would issue the soldier tokens, and to ensure the merchant ultimately received payment, he would have the soldier sign a paymaster’s order. On payday the paymaster paid the sutlers who extended credit before the soldier finally received what remained. Issuing tokens insured that the soldier did not take his business elsewhere.

Raised mainly from free men of color from Ohio, the 27th USCI, spent the majority of their service in Virginia and North Carolina. They participated in the Petersburg Campaign as part of Ferrero’s Division in the IX Corps and were among the United States Colored Troops who fought at the Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864) and during Grant’s Sixth Offensive (October 27, 1864). They also spent part of their duty on the Bermuda Hundred, where a soldier likely dropped or misplaced this particular token.

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