This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. With all eyes on America’s historic battlegrounds, it’s going to be a big year for sutlers, too.
Sutlers, historically, were civilian merchants who sold supplies to armies in the field and in their camps. They often followed marching soldiers across long distances, selling merchandise out of the back of a wagon. We still have merchants like this today—the defense contractors who supply the military with state-of-the-art equipment.
But there are also a handful of modern sutlers selling the same rifles, ammo and tobacco that they might have sold in the 1860s. Only these days they do it on a website instead of a field camp, and the shots and soldiers aren’t real.
When interest in the Civil War and reenacting bloomed during the war’s centennial in the early 1960s, entrepreneurs saw a need and filled it. Today, there are an estimated 50,000 historical war reenactors in the U.S., and a cottage industry of modern sutlers keep them – Union and Confederacy alike – supplied with the guns, uniforms and other gear they need.
In the American reenactment scene – which you might say was born on the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, when septuagenarian veterans from both the Confederacy and the Union returned to the battlefield to wave their canes at each other in a reenactment of Pickett's Charge – authenticity is a tricky thing.
While some groups and events are more strict about authenticity than others, most will attempt to at least conceal inauthentic items (water bottles, cell phones) from their audience and maintain gear that looks authentic from the distance where the audience usually stands.
The hardcore reenactors will only consider items with documented historical use during a given period. That's where the real money is for sutlers. These reenactors have been known to seek out subpar dental care, starve themselves, and soak their uniform buttons in urine in order to look just like Civil War-era infantrymen. They’re willing to pay extra for hand-woven, naturally dyed uniforms, period-accurate rifles, and even vintage pencils for taking notes and writing letters during their downtime at camp.
With a standard Civil War wardrobe and accessory kit retailing for about $1,000 and a rifle going for another grand, sutlers' business should be pretty good this year.
When business is a little slow with the reenactors, historic gear merchants still have other customers to keep the money flowing. Historic sites, museums and movie and television producers often call on them to create replicas of historic items for use and display. Some sutlers, like The Discriminating General — which American Spirit calls one of the big three companies cornering the reenactment gear market in the U.S. — also perform historical research and consulting services to museums, historic sites, and even private collectors and history buffs.