“Guilty Party:” Bessie Sulers and Schuylkill Arsenal Outwork

In John Billings’ famous Hardtack and Coffee, he references the ritual that nearly every man in the various Federal armies participated in with the opening of the spring campaign: “At the first start from camp, many men would burden themselves with much more than [the “necessary” items of a soldier’s kit], but after a few miles tramp the roadside would be sprinkled with castaway articles.”[1] A soldier could always purchase these items again when the time came from his forty-two dollar per-year clothing allowance, and Billings makes it very clear that the soldier carried only what was necessary. Overcoats, blankets, blouses, coats, and every other piece of government issue clothing—and undoubtedly many articles that were not provided by the government—were cast aside along dusty and muddy roads across the South.

What many of these men probably did not consider was the work put into making each of those government issue items; may not have realized that their mother or sister could have made these items in a contract house or their own home.

Women reported working upwards of sixteen and eighteen hours per day sewing garments for the war effort, and making only cents for the work they completed. While this topic alone has filled chapters of books and articles in journals, it is easiest here to say that nineteenth century understandings of gender and household income did not permit these women to make more than a pittance for their work, even when they were working as a single woman when their husbands were fighting in the Federal armies.

And it is this last topic that Bessie Sulers’ story and her association with the Schuylkill Arsenal of Philadelphia emerges. From what little record can be found about Ms. Sulers, she worked as a seamstress for the Arsenal where she performed “outwork” – the process by which a seamstress would come to the Arsenal and receive pre-cut pieces of garments that she would then take home and have a certain number of days to complete that work and deliver it for inspection and, if the pieces were accepted, she would receive payment. The problem Ms. Sulers and thousands of other women of the city ran into was that their wages did not keep up with inflation. Estimates range from seventy-five to over one hundred percent inflation over the course of the war, and some items crept even higher than that. For example, Coffee was six cents per pound before the war and by 1864 it had risen to forty-six cents. Tea was fifty cents per pound and one dollar twenty-five cents per pound in 1864. Butter was fourteen cents per pound and forty-five cents by 1864.[2]

With all of this in mind, it is not hard to believe that many men and women that did Arsenal and contract work tried various schemes to try and get every cent they could. Bessie Sulers did just that. On October 28, 1864 she was accused of stealing clothing from the Arsenal and was fired. Stealing extra clothing and work had been an ever-present problem at the Arsenal as the sewing women could steal extra work, either complete it herself or share the work with friends and neighbors, and then turn in the work as their own. The problem was so great that ten days before Bessie was fired, on October 18, the Arsenal issued “Special Orders No. 1” which placed restrictions on the closing of the Arsenal. At the striking of the closing bell, the “Superintendent in charge of the Watchmen” would ensure all other doors leading out of the Arsenal ground would be closed, leaving only the main gate to be left open. They did so because “An attempt on the part of some of the Employees to take clothing from the Arsenal” had just been “detected.” If an employee was caught, “the ‘Guilty Party’ will be ‘Placarded’ and will be marched under Guard through the Arsenal grounds for such a length of time as will be deemed a just and proper punishment.”[3] There is no evidence that Bessie Sulers was punished in this way, just that she was immediately fired.

Her “ordering off” must have placed her in a dangerous position as two days after she was fired, she appeared before “Geo. Palchel,” an Alderman in Philadelphia. Bessie approached him to provide a sworn statement of her innocence. On the formal document drawn up for her statement, she said that “she has never sold her Arsenal work and that hereafter she will do the work herself…”[4] While the Arsenal inspectors may have suspected that Ms. Sulers was selling her work to other women, the more likely story, and one based on her sworn statement, is that she used the other women and girls living in her house to complete the work. In doing so, the inspectors were able to tell, based on stitching and construction, that the garments were made by different people. With the recent Special Order and the heightened security measures to prevent the stealing of work to sell, it is not surprising that Bessie Sulers was thought to be selling her work. In the end, however, Bessie Sulers’ statement worked as she presented the signed and notarized statement at the Arsenal and was hired back into her outwork position on November 4, 1864.

It is unclear how Bessie Sulers got her Arsenal job in the first place, as it had become increasingly difficult to gain a position after 1862. A small but lucrative business sprang up during the war in order to prove that women seeking work had relatives in the military, thereby almost guaranteeing their admittance. The Arsenal, although paying little for the outwork, offered considerably higher prices for the garments than the contracting firms across the North. While Bessie’s story is not earth-shatteringly pivotal to understanding the Civil War, her story provides a glimpse into a little seen and often underestimated world of home front life. As the war dragged on and soldiers grew wearier of war, their relatives at home were growing weary as well, supporting their soldiers at the front – the same soldiers that threw away the work their relatives worked so hard to produce.

[1] John D. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 317.

[2] “Petition of the Journeyman Shoe Makers Society to Quartermaster General M. C. Meigs,” NARA RG 92, Box 652 – Office of the Quartermaster General Consolidated Correspondence File, 1794-1915, Meigs, M. C. 1861, Resignation and Reported Letters and Index to Letters Received 1863.

[3] “Clothing Depot Schuylkill Arsenal Special Orders No. 1,” NARA-Philadelphia RG 92, Box 1, e. 2331 – Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General Schuylkill Arsenal, Special Order of the Clothing Department 1864.

[4] NARA-Philadelphia RG 92, Box 7 – Applications for positions at the Schuylkill Arsenal and Related Correspondence 1861-1867, Female 1864 Q-Z.

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