US Coins

Sutler tokens from collector Bill Kelly sold in auction

U.S. coins in small denominations were hard to come by in the Civil War, and merchants took matters in their own hands by producing Civil War tokens. These private issues can largely be divided in three groups: store cards, patriotic tokens and sutler tokens.

Sutlers, in their broadest definition, were civilian merchants who sold provisions to armies and established temporary shops around soldiers’ camps near battlefields. Their tokens were most often made of brass and were produced by many of the same shops that produced patriotic tokens and store cards. For collectors wanting to learn more, David Schenkman’s 1983 reference Civil War Sutler Tokens and Cardboard Scrip is useful, as is Whitman’s A Guide Book of Civil War Tokens.

The privately issued pieces were used primarily in the Midwest and Northeast and the Whitman reference explains that these were usually called “checks” in the era of their use. “They were issued by licensed contractors who typically operated camp stores in connection with traveling military regiments and companies, although a few had fixed locations such as military posts.”

Stack’s Bowers Galleries offered the Bill Kelly Collection of Civil War Sutler Tokens at a June 13 session, which featured a warm introduction by the collector, who first received a token as a gift from his wife. His initial collecting goal was to collect one example from each state, while he built a large cent collection. “But soon die varieties and die states of government minted coins seemed much less interesting than tokens made for and used by Civil War soldiers,” Kelly said, and his collection ultimately grew to 142 pieces including 113 major varieties.

Maine’s only sutler tokens

Most expensive at $18,000 was an undated (1861 to 1865) C.W. Bangs 6th Maine Battery 25-cent token struck in nickel. It was graded About Uncirculated Details, Reverse Scratched, by Numismatic Guaranty Co. and is listed as ME-6-25N in the Schenkman reference. The 25-cent token was the highest denomination issued by Bangs, the only known Maine sutler to issue tokens. It has the simple designs characteristic of sutler tokens, and a thin reverse scratch can be seen on otherwise lustrous surfaces. It had been off the market for more than a decade, last selling in Steve Hayden’s October 2011 auction for $4,375.

Realizing $13,200 was a rare undated (1861 to 1865) T.J. Doyle 1st Pennsylvania Artillery, Battery A 10-cent token, cataloged as Schenkman PA-1-10L and graded Mint State 61 by NGC. While the Schenkman reference calls it lead, the Stack’s Bowers cataloger suggests that it seems to be of a harder composition, acknowledging while there is probably some lead content, it is likely an alloy and observing, “A bit of chalky white oxidation within the recesses of the letters nicely brings out the design.” Kelly noted that Doyle was “one of the few sutlers who issued tokens for an army unit smaller than a regiment.” No other denominations are known. 

“Our collective past”

One of the most important pieces in the consignment was a 50 cent brass token issued by C.H. Smith for the 117th United States Colored Troops. Smith seems to have issued four denominations for this regiment, all of which are rare. Like many, it shows evidence of circulation and the cataloger writes, “Obviously worn from use in camp, but aside from the usual minor handling marks (mostly evident under magnification), this is a remarkably problem-free survivor.”

According to the National Parks Service, the 117th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry was organized at Covington, Kentucky, July 18 to Sept. 27, 1864, and soon attached to the Military District of Kentucky, Department of the Ohio, to October 1864. On April 9, 1865, the 109th, 114th, 116th and 117th U.S. Colored Infantry were present at Appomattox Courthouse during the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Graded AU-50 by NGC and listed as Schenkman US-117-50B, it brought $9,600.

Kelly shared, “To me, these sutler tokens represent real connections to our collective past,” adding that, “chasing these and studying these pieces of our history have become significant parts of my history.”

The sutler era was short lived, and on July 26, 1866, the office of sutler was abolished by an act of Congress and the licensees were generally designated as post traders. While many of the examples in the Kelly collection represented the rarest examples, more common ones can be found for around $200 and up.

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