Certain that Nashville’s prostitutes were the source of the venereal plague, Union officials decided it was easier to get rid of them, than it was to keep their men from paying for sex
The Federal invasion of Tennessee began in early 1862, when Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant moved against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. Both fortifications fell in February. Another Federal army under Don Carlos Buell captured Nashville on the 25th.
Confederate presence in Tennessee essentially ceased to exist by June. West Tennessee would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war.
Robert E. Lee wrote to his wife on February 23, “The news from Tennessee and North Carolina is not cheering and disasters seem to be thickening around us”.
Union commanders declared martial law, posting garrisons in major towns including Chattanooga, Memphis, and Murfreesboro. Nashville in particular became a major military center, permanently occupied by thousands of Federal troops and support personnel.
According to the 1860 Census, Nashville had 198 white prostitutes and 9 described as “mulatto”, plying their trade in the two block red-light district known as “Smoky Row”. By 1862, the number of these “public women” had grown to 1,500. It was barely enough to go around.
Major General William Rosecrans saw this sex trade as an issue and ordered George Spalding, Provost Marshal of Nashville, to get rid of them. Though a Catholic, “Old Rosy’s” objection wasn’t based on moral grounds. He was afraid of disease. 8.2% of all Union soldiers were afflicted with syphilis or gonorrhea in 1862, over half the battle casualty rate of 17.5% Venereal disease was a major problem, and the only available treatments at the time involved mercury. Without getting into details, that could take a man out for weeks. Advanced cases were nothing short of grotesque.
Certain that Nashville’s prostitutes were the source of the plague, Union officials decided it was easier to get rid of them, than it was to keep their men from paying for sex. Spalding had all the prostitutes in Nashville gathered up by July, (I wonder what that sounded like). The Nashville Daily Press reported “A variety of ruses were adopted to avoid being exiled; among them, the marriage of one of the most notorious of the cyprians to some scamp. The artful daughter of sin was still compelled to take a berth with her suffering companions, and she is on her way to banishment”.
John Newcomb was the owner of a brand new steam powered riverboat, the “Idahoe”. (I swear I didn’t make that up). To Newcomb’s horror, Spalding ordered him to take 111 of Nashville’s most infamous hookers out of town, on Idahoe’s maiden voyage. Giving him three days’ rations, authorities didn’t care where he took them, so long as he got them out of Nashville.
It took a week for Idahoe to reach Louisville, by which time news of the unusual passenger list had already reached that city’s law enforcement. Newcomb was forbidden from docking there, and ordered to continue on to Cincinnati. Ohio didn’t want Nashville’s hookers any more than Louisville, so the steamboat was ordered to dock across the river in Kentucky.
Some of the women swam ashore but nobody was permitted to leave. Holcomb was desperate, finally returning to Louisville once more, only to be turned away again. Defeated, John Newcomb returned to Nashville 28 days later, with 98 of his original passengers and six children.
With Idahoe’s owner demanding to be compensated, a staffer inspected the vessel on August 8, finding the ship’s staterooms “badly damaged, the mattresses badly soiled,” and recommending that Newcomb be paid $1,000 in damages + $4,300 for food and for the “medicine peculiar to the diseased of women in this class”.
In the end, it proved easier to manage the world’s oldest profession, than it was to eliminate it. A scheme was devised, by which each prostitute in Nashville would register and pay a $5 license fee, entitling her to ply her trade. A doctor would examine these women once a week, a service for which she would pay another 50¢. Women found to have venereal diseases were sent to a hospital, paid for in part by the weekly fees. The result of the program, according to one doctor, was a “marked improvement” in licensed prostitutes’ physical and mental health.
Altogether, the program cost about $6,000, on revenues of $5,900. Venereal disease was cut to one or two cases among the soldiers, compared to 3,000 or more without it. Today, the system practiced in Lyon County Nevada, closely resembles this system established in 1863.
As for John Newcomb, he waited almost two years for his money, finally writing directly to Secretary of War Edward Stanton before receiving any reimbursement. The Idahoe never again cruised in Southern rivers. “I told them it would forever ruin her reputation as a passenger boat”, he said. “It was done, so she is now & since known as the floating whore house.”