Monday, November 16, 2015

Prostitution in Civil War Nashville

By Greg Segroves, 4-3-13

Trivia question. What city in the United States was the first to legalize prostitution? If you answered Las Vegas Nevada you are wrong. It was Nashville Tennessee in 1863. There are many things that can reduce the effectiveness of an Army in wartime. The use of alcohol, drugs, and sexually transmitted disease. That is in any era. More soldiers died from disease in the Civil War than died from bullets. Besides sexually transmitted disease men died from poor hygiene. The poor placement of latrines near a camp. Surgeons using dirty hands while treating wounds. Because of the Civil War medical officials began to realize that disease could be prevented by changing unhealthy practices and educating troops. This ratio of deaths from disease as opposed to combat wounds changed in World War 1. In every war since more men have died from combat wounds than disease. There were 750,000 deaths from both causes in the Civil War.

In 1860 there were 207 prostitutes living in Nashville. The largest brothel housed 17 women and it was located on the river front near lower Broad & 1st Ave, or as it was called then, Front St. The average house had anywhere from one to three women. In 1860 Nashville had a population of 17,000. Five thousand of these were free blacks and slaves. When the war broke out thousands of Confederate troops passed through Nashville and then the city fell to Union Forces on 25-Feb-1862. There were as many as 100,000 troops in and around Nashville at various times. Washington D.C. and Nashville had the biggest problem with prostitution because Washington was the headquarters for the eastern armies and Nashville was the headquarters for the western armies.

There was a four block area from present day 1st Ave. to 4th Ave. called "Smoky Row" which was the "red light district". The term hooker was in use before the war but it was popularized in relation to General Joseph Hooker who had a reputation for hanging out with loose women. Nashville actually acquired the nickname as the "city of 10,000 whores' but the actual number was estimated at 1,500. The rise of sexually transmitted disease became so bad that the army's chief medical officer rounded up as many prostitutes as he could find and put them on a new steamboat called the "Idahoe". He sent them to Louisville and that city refused to take them. Then they eventually traveled to Cincinnatti where they also were not wanted. In the meantime these women trashed the steamboat. The steamboat Captain gave up and returned To Nashville. They found that the black prostitutes were picking up the slack for the missing white prostitutes. After this failed attempt a notice was issued to the prostitutes that they had until 20-Aug-1863 to be medically examined by a Army surgeon and after paying a 5.00 dollar fee they would be issued a permit to ply their trade. The new ordinance stated that they must be re-examined every 10 to 14 days. By April 30th 1864, 352 women had been licensed. Thanks to legalization only 30 of the first 999 soldiers to contract a sexually transmitted disease contracted it in Nashville.

Syphilis before the discovery of penicillin was the 19th century's version of AID's. They treated it with salts of mercury. Mercury is extremely toxic. This treatment led to the saying that "a night with Venus means a lifetime with Mercury". There were 23 military hospital's in Nashville during the war. One hospital was for soldiers suffering from STD's. One was for white prostitutes, and one was for black prostitutes. The first picture is of an era prostitute. The second is the permit issued to a Nashville prostitute and the third is believed to be the wartime hospital for white prostitutes on Second ave. near Jo Johnston . Because of the success achieved at Nashville Memphis became the second city to legalize prostitution.



If only our modern legislators were smart enough to do something like this. It is very costly to try to regulate something that is used by so many, look at the great failure of the prohibition of alcohol which only served to give organized crime a seemingly permanent toehold in American society. Regulating and controlling is the sensible approach.

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