Until virtually the eve of the twentieth century the regimental sutler was a commonplace of American military life. A sutler was a retail merchant who provided non-issue items to the troops, for a price. Usually shoddy items for a considerable price. This made sutlers very unpopular among the troops. But not always.
On maneuvers in western Nebraska in 1889, the sutler of the 7th Cavalry seemed unusually popular with the troops, who were constantly dropping by his wagon. Oddly, they seemed particularly enthusiastic about a supply of watermelons that he carried. Even more oddly, some of the melons were priced at a dime a piece, while others were selling for a buck each.
This anomaly aroused the interest of one of the regiment’s officers, who decided to investigate. It didn’t take him long to discover the reason for the difference, which had to do with the “quality” of the melons. The ten cent watermelons were just ordinary watermelons. The dollar ones were “special.” For a buck, a soldier got a watermelon that the sutler had hollowed out, and then thoughtfully inserted into the space thus created a pint of whiskey.
Shortly thereafter the 7th Cavalry got a new sutler.
“Isn’t that a Lovely Sight?”
On the evening of Dec 6, 1941, the Commander of the Army’s Hawaiian Department, Lt. Gen. Walter G. Short and his wife attended a social function at the Schofield Barracks Officer’s Club. They left the club about 9:30 p.m.
As the general and his wife drove home, the naturally passed the fleet, lying at its moorings in Pearl Harbor. Each ship was brightly lit.
Seeing this Short remarked, “Isn’t that a lovely sight?” Then he paused, and added thoughtfully, “ . . . and what a target they would make.”
A prescient observation, one which the general later recalled rather ruefully.
Alas, despite having received a war warning from the War Department only ten days before, on November 27th, Short, who had certainly seen the sight before, didn’t seem to think enough of the matter to take it up with Adm. Husband Kimmel.
“And a Hearty Laugh was Had by All”
During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Age, Britain’s second greatest admiral was undoubtedly Sir John Jervis, the Earl of St. Vincent (1735-1823). St. Vincent was a tough old sea dog. A stern disciplinarian, he also had a great love of ceremony, and when not busy blockading an enemy coast or sinking an enemy fleet, was wont to devise elaborate rituals to both occupy and entertain the men of the Royal Navy.
For example, he contrived a special ritual to begin each day. At 8:30 sharp each morning, a ship’s marines were to parade on the poop beck for precisely one-half hour, while the rest of the ship’s company stood at attention at general quarters. At precisely 9:00, the marines were to descend to the quarterdeck, and present arms. At this, the ship’s company would doff their hats, and the ship’s band would play “God Save the King.”
Now however much this ceremonial may have pleased the admiral, it did not necessarily impress all present. Thinking some of St. Vincent’s little rituals a mite ridiculous, one day, Lt. William Pryce Cumby, of HM Frigate Thalia (36 guns), composed a lampoon in which he satirized the new ceremonies. Copies of this soon circulated in the fleet. Naturally, one eventually reached the hand of St. Vincent himself.
A few days later, Lt. Cumby received an invitation to dine with the admiral. There was nothing unusual in this, as the admiral often invited quite junior officers to dinner. So the lieutenant went to the flagship with a light heart. There was a fine repast, with much conversation. At the meal’s end, Lt. Cumby was asked to read aloud for the entertainment of the admiral and his guests. Now this too was a not unusual custom of the day. But when Cumby rose to read, he was handed a copy of his lampoon. With increasing trepidation, the lieutenant read from his masterpiece, while the admiral’s smiling face turned increasingly stony. As Cumby, with trembling voice, neared the end, there was suddenly a great peal of laughter, as the admiral burst out in loud guffaws, at once breaking the tension.
As a reward for his wit, Lt. Cumby was granted an exceptional leave.
Although he never rose to high command, William Pryce Cumby had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Navy. The senior lieutenant in HMS Bellerephon (74 guns) at Trafalgar, when her captain was mortally wounded, Cumby took command and fought the ship until the end of the battle. The following January he was promoted to post captain. From then until the end of the wars, Cumby commanded various frigates and 64-gun ships on blockade duty. After the wars he played a small role in arctic exploration. He died, still a captain, but with a CB, in 1837. So his little lampoon seems not to have affected his career in the least. Of course, he may just have been lucky that St. Vincent had a great sense of humor.