NEW BUSINESS, OLD WAR
Civil War buffs have created a market of historic proportions.
By Jerry Useem
Fortune Small Business, December 1999/January 2000
ONE REGULATION-ISSUE canteen: $50. One tin of hardtack: $6. One 1861-model Springfield rifle: $900. The chance to dress up like Stonewall Jackson and smear fake blood all over your beard: priceless.
It's getting on a century and a half since the North and the South laid down arms, but the business of provisioning Civil War soldiers is booming as never before. "This here is the McLellan," says Doug Kidd, wiping the dust off a $795 reproduction saddle he sells.
Kidd is what is known as a sutler, after the merchants who followed the Civil War armies. Part businessman, part performance artist, the Arkansas native has driven all night to the broken hills of northern Georgia to profit from one of America's fastest-growing--and most expensive--hobbies. Roughly 8,000 uniformed men have encamped here to reenact the 1863 battle of Chickamauga, in which a retreating Confederate army wheeled and nearly smashed its Federal pursuers. And while the reenactors are clad in either Union Blue or Confederate Gray, each side has plenty of U.S. greenbacks to keep its period look up to date. Or rather, not up to date.
It's hard to estimate how much these weekend warriors spend every year, but to judge from the 75 tented businesses on "sutler's row" at Chickamauga (there are an estimated 400 nationwide), 1999 looks like their best year since 1865.
In their stores today: corncob pipe, $4; cartridge box, $48; Federal-issue trousers, $86. Those inclined to self-promotion can get sergeants' chevrons for $12, and field doctors can find bleeding bowls for $18. Or you and your messmates could buy a bronze Napoleon cannon from Steen Cannons of Kentucky: $28,800 for barrel and carriage (cannonballs not included).
Like many others, saddlemaker Kidd stumbled into the sutler's trade by accident. Back in 1981, when he was a full-time mechanic, Kidd crafted his own cavalry gear so he could join a re-enactment on horseback. But his fellow reenactors quickly bought the stuff off him. Today his Border States Leatherworks sells about 600 saddles a year, and Kidd is part of the vagabond industry moving from one muddy or dust-choked encampment to another. "This is all I do," says Wendell Decker, who hauls his glass-plate camera to 40-plus reenactments a year and will take your likeness for $30.
But this business isn't for the historically obtuse. As Kidd will tell you, a well outfitted Confederate is not the guy parading in plumes and finery. He's what's known as a farb--an etymologically obscure term that means "phony." [It is not obscure. Click here. – Jonah] The authentic Confederate is the guy wearing a motley collection of gray-and butternut clothes, his feet clad in ill-fitting brogans or even rags. He's the one who has starved himself for the past few weeks to achieve that emaciated look of the hungry Rebel. He is a "hard-core."
Because hard-cores will pay top dollar, sutlers vie to win their respect. Take Mechanical Baking Co. of Pekin, Ill., which specializes in the biscuit-like staple known as hardtack. Fax from touting a moist or savory product, the bakers promise one that must be "broken up with a rock or rifle butt, placed in the cheek pocket, and softened with saliva enough to be chewed." Likewise, cavalry outfitter F. Burgess and Co. would never stitch saddles with cotton thread--the 1862 Ordnance Manual clearly calls for linen cord coated with rosin.
One purist is Philip Cavanaugh, proprietor of Haversack Depot, who has been part of the reenactment movement since the centennial celebrations in 1961. "He's extreme. He's real," says one awestruck reenactment veteran. Cavanaugh researches original items at the Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, Va., counting things such as stitches per square inch. He hand-sews 23 button-holes on each of his $75 tents and has the calluses to prove it. (His vintage Willcox and Gibbs lock-stitch machine, acquired on eBay, can't produce the same pattern.)
Not all suffers are so scrupulous. Some are considered modern-day Rhett Butlers--profiteers with little interest in the war itself. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a robber baron," says one Yankee hothead of a particular merchant. To separate the authentic from the farby, some hard-core regiments appoint "inspectors general" to review each recruit's equipage, drumming out all who fail to pass muster. There's even a quarterly journal called The Watchdog, which rates the gear. A good review can mean mega sales.
I try to track down its editor-in-chief, Bill Christen, at The Watchdog's tent, but he's not around and apparently won't be anytime soon. "He's going to be killed sometime today," associate editor Lynn Kalil tells me. Kalil is wearing a cotton dress with an indigo-dyed pattern (printed from the original rollers, of course) and lowers her voice when discussing specific merchants. "Some suffers have no documentation. They just make it up," she says, adding sotto voce: "There are many of them here." She declines to name names, but a recent Watchdog skewers one bootee maker for having nine nails in the heel instead of 32 and another for having "Made in U.S.A." on a putatively Confederate shoe.
One hot area, according to Kalil: civilian wear for baby-boomers who are getting too old to pass for Civil War soldiers. (Their real age averaged 25.) Unwilling to live entirely in the present, some are coming to reenactments as cooks, preachers, and yes, suffers. Women's apparel is another growth business. But here too, the farbs invade. Victorian women pulled back their hair into severe-looking buns because loose hair meant loose morals. Yet most of the hoop-skirted women promenading here have flowing locks. "There's not one in ten who gets it right," complains Cavanaugh as a cotillion of Scarlett O'Haras glides past.
Because many sutlers also suit up as soldiers, make-believe can sometimes intrude on making money. Doug Kidd has 15 men under his command here at Chickamauga, including one who is also his employee. Speaking of which, the battle is about to get under way. "Gotta get my troops!" says Kidd, skedaddling from his shop. Joining the horde of spectators, 10,000 strong and blindingly Caucasian, I find that the Confederates, once again, seem to be winning. "Go Rebels!" a spectator shouts. A long blue line of Yankees kneel and pour forth a volley. Confederate cavalry countercharge up a hill. The carnage is ... nonexistent. (Hey, nobody drove all the way here just to fall over and play dead right away.) But finally casualties do kick in, complete with fake blood and Oscar-worthy contortions.
Back on sutler's row at day's end, I'm thirsty for some authentic root beer but low on cash. Maybe that Confederate bill my uncle gave me would be legal tender here? No, I'm told. There are some things Confederate money can buy. For everything else, there are U.S. dollars.