Give a Union General a Problem; a Lieutenant Colonel an Order; add the World's Oldest Profession; What Could Go Wrong?

DBF

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
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William S Rosecrans - - - George Spalding
(1819–1898) - - - (1836–1915)
(Public Domain)

It was a major problem that plagued both sides during the war. It had the potential to take out thousands of men from the front lines. It was a problem that in 1863 found the epicenter located in Nashville. It was a problem that involved 1,500 souls on one side alone. It was a problem that General Rosecrans was willing to face and deal with. It was a problem that twenty-seven year old Nashville Provost Officer Lt. Colonel George Spalding was tasked to handle. What was the “it”? Prostitution

In the first days of July 1863 an order came to Lt. Colonel Spalding directly from General Rosecrans. I’m sure he must have read this a couple of times:

“without loss of time seize and transport to Louisville all prostitutes found in the city or known to be here.” {1}

Lt. Colonel George Spalding probably never imagined he would be in this position handling this critical and necessary assignment. Born in 1833 in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Scotland he immigrated to the United States when he was ten years old. He lived in Buffalo, New York and later moved to Monroe, Michigan and was a school teacher until he enlisted in Company A, Fourth Regiment, Michigan Volunteer Infantry.

By July 9, 1863 the Nashville Daily Press is reporting the roundup of “sinful fair” has begun; but what led to this order and action by General Rosencrans.

Soldiers Take a Walk Down Smokey Row

It was the worse kept secret in Nashville. As Union soldiers were arriving in Nashville they were lured to visit “Smokey Row”. It was a two block-long row of homes that were serving as brothels and was the place to go to be entertained by the ladies of the night. Nashville was the “hub” for the Union Army with thousands of soldiers passing through the city on the way to battles and possibly death. Young men many who are away from home for the first time in their lives with money “burning a hole” in their pockets and General Rosencrans certainly knew that “boys will be boys”.

It didn’t take long before Army hospitals were being filled not from battle wounds but from venereal disease. Aware that no man could be spared in the fighting, Rosencrans had to deal with the social and moral problems these ladies were presenting. After Major Spalding had been wounded in the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862 and had accepted a leave of absence he was about to depart when the Michigan Governor Austin Blair sent him a request promoting him to Major of the 4th Regiment. Spalding made the decision to accept the position as Captain and soon to be Lieutenant Colonel of the 18th Michigan Infantry reporting to General Lew Wallace. From this position within a year the 18th Michigan was assigned to Rosecrans and ended up in Nashville with Spalding appointed the Provost Marshall.

Plan “A”

“There is not much desire on the part of our authorities to welcome such a large addition
to the already overflowing numbers engaged in their peculiar profession.”
Cincinnati Gazette, 1863
{2}

I suppose this plan of “seizing and transporting” sounded good when it first came out, however rounding up a group of ladies is always going to be a challenge to men. But this was the plan and they targeted the most known notorious ladies. As luck would have it a brand new boat owned by John Newcomb was just docked in Nashville and the army quickly commandeered it and before you can say bye-bye one hundred and eleven working girls, some in their teen years and one seventy year old lady in the mix are loaded and the boat is headed to Louisville.

It was a disaster from the beginning. The Nashville Daily Press reported on July 9, “A variety of ruses were adopted to avoid being exiled”. Women were not exactly lined up to be forced from the only way they knew to make money.

What a fun trip for all!! As word of what was being transported on the boat traveled upon the water route the soldiers on board were kept busy. Ladies were yelling and plying their trade, men were jumping in the water in an attempt to swim to the boat, and there was even a concern the ladies were attracting the attention of Confederates watching from the opposite shore line. If that wasn’t enough when they arrived in Louisville city leaders rowed out and told them to keep moving and their welcome there was not welcoming. They met the same message as they neared Cincinnati. After twenty-eight days the boat was back in Nashville with ninety-eight ladies. No report on the thirteen ladies that were not on board when the boat docked.

Plan “B”

“In the realm of unmarried sex, Nashville remains America’s first experiment with legalized, regulated prostitution. Even with the primitive medical treatment available then, it seems to have been a remarkable success.”
Thomas P. Lowry

Lt. Colonel Spalding came up with another plan - legalize prostitution. He was a man ahead of the times when he announced a register on all the working women and a system to keep them healthy. It was a first foray into Public Health for sex workers. His plan:

Requiring that each public woman register and be issued a $5 license complete with her name and address, and a record be kept of the license.
  1. Appointing a skillful surgeon as a Board of Examination to give each licensed public woman a weekly examination and certificate to verify her health and ordering the diseased public women to receive hospital treatment.
  2. Establishing a suitable hospital for sick public women and collecting a weekly tax of 50 cents from every licensed public woman to defray the hospital expense.
  3. Arresting public women plying their trade without a license and certificate immediately, and sending them to the workhouse for at least thirty days. {3}
How did the women react:

It all was dependent on the health of the lady. Each woman needed to have a physical examination and be deemed free from disease before they would be legally allowed to perform their trade. For a woman with a venereal disease she faced a dire fate. She was forced to be in a hospital known by its nickname Hospital 11 “Pest House”. {7} The lead physician Dr. William Chambers reported that after the first six months of regulations ninety-two women had been diagnosed with a venereal disease.

Many ladies were grateful for the regulations. There was a certain safety in visiting a physician for treatments instead of the usual “quacks and charlatans” for expensive and ineffective treatments. {1} Another benefit of the program - ladies did not fear arrest once they were registered. It was also considered a “plus” when a lady of the evening produced her “license” to a prospective client proving she was legal and disease-free.

By August of 1864, the government had issued 500 licenses to Nashville prostitutes. Included in that number were 50 black women, although initially excluded from the program, they were now enrolled. Infections rates among Union soldiers dropped and the program spread successfully to Memphis.

The War Ends - The Army Leaves

General Rosecrans was removed from command after the Battle of Chickamauga and spent the rest of the war as the Commander of the Department of Missouri. George Spalding was transferred before he was able to see how his Plan B was implemented. He was assigned as a Colonel in the Twelfth Tennessee Cavalry and fought guerrillas that infested the Nashville and North Western Railroad. Both the General (1881-1885) and Lieutenant Colonel (1895-1899) served the respective states of California and Michigan in the United States House of Representatives.

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John Newcomb the owner of the infamous boat that carried the ladies up and down the river finally received reimbursement from the government. Edward Stanton the Secretary of War awarded him $6,000.00 after Newcomb proved he was owed the money due:

“that the removal of the Nashville prostitutes had been “necessary and for the good of the service.” {1}
Because the his boat had been used for such “women” he knew it would never sail again as a passenger boat for the respectable people.

When the army left so did the program. Sadly I don’t know what happened to the women once they lost the protection of the Union Army. As the war ended how many women were sent into prostitution for what they saw as the only way to provide financially for their needs? There are no numbers readily available probably because no one cared to count the tragic cost of war to the women. How many female former slaves turned to the selling of their bodies? Once again we can only speculate. The “Nashville Experiment” the first attempt to legalize and regulate prostitution in the United States providing the women with protection from customers as well as disease, was quickly swept into the dust bin of history and prostitution continues to be the “oldest profession in the world”.





Sources
1. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-curious-case-of-nashvilles-frail-sisterhood-7766757
2. http://www.jmarkpowell.com/111-prostitutes-the-original-love-boat/
3.
https://monroemichigan.wordpress.com/tag/general-george-spalding/
4. http://howcanamandiebetter.com/nashvilles-smokey-row-and-gen-rosecrans-public-safety-laws/
5. https://msu.edu/~workmana/pages/nashville.html
6.
https://www.civilwarmed.org/prostitutes/
7. https://www.nashvillescene.com/news...about-nashvilles-civil-war-prostitute-history
8.
http://www.ncsociology.org/torchmagazine/v903/Fockler.pdf
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The newspaper reports describing the trip down River & back again are very amusing. Grant said that whoever ordered it should have had to pay for the steamboat personally.
 
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Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I recently had a really interesting exchange with a friend who studies the CW from a female perspective. We were discussing the renovation of a house in Edgefield, across the river from downtown Nashville. The house had been a brothel during the Civil War. The new owner asked her if she knew anything about the women who lived there.

I had never though much about this subject. The prostitutes were, by & large country women. There isn’t much in the way of personal accounts, but there appears to have been farm girl practicality about all things sexual at work. There are, according to my friend, a remarkable number of bios where the sex workers married & lived unremarkable lives after the war.

At a time when there was a literal sexual slave market in New Orleans & sexual assault on enslaved women was an unremarkable, everyday occurrence the attitude toward sexual relationships of that time can be hard to pin down today.
 
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DBF

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
General Rosecrans has his critics but I admire him for tackling this problem and granted at first he wanted to pass it on to someone else, when that failed they had a modicum of success in controlling the spread of disease and for providing a system of regulation for the girls. Of course it was beneficial to him to get a handle on the health of his troops, when you consider: “The Surgeon General of the United States Army documented 183,000 cases of venereal disease in the Union Army.” and the Surgeon General concluded in a report that these regulations: “while it does not encourage vice it prevents to a considerable extent its worst consequences.”

https://artsci.case.edu/dittrick/online-exhibits/history-of-birth-control/contraception-in-america-1800-1900/the-civil-war-sex-and-soldiers/
 
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