The Union Army licensed the "public women" of Smokey Row

From The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, by Thomas P. Lowry, MD. (Stackpole Books, 1994):

In Nashville, Tennessee, “public women” practiced prostitution in Smokey Row, an area two blocks wide and four blocks long. For three-quarters of a mile on either side of Spring (now Church) Street, every shack or building along Front, Market, College, and Cherry (now First, Second, Third, and Fourth) Streets was a house of ill fame. In the census of 1860, 207 women listed their occupation as “prostitute.” Eighty-seven were illiterate, 198 were white and 9 mulatto. The youngest was 15, the oldest 59; mean age was 23.

On March 12, 1862, Andrew Johnson arrived as military governor of Tennessee. With the presence of 30,000 Union soldiers in the vicinity, venereal disease soon spread. Several doctors advertised dispensaries for treating “private diseases.”

Union Lt. Col. George Spalding, 18th Michigan, was provost marshal to keep order in Nashville. In 1863, he proposed:

1. That a license be issued to each prostitute, a record of which shall be kept at this office, together with the number and street of her residence.

2. That one skillful surgeon be appointed as a Board of Examination, whose duty it shall be to examine personally, every week, each licensed prostitute, giving certificates of soundness to those who are healthy and ordering into hospital those who are in the slightest degree diseased.

3. That a building suitable for a hospital for the invalids be taken for that purpose, and that a weekly tax of 50 cents be levied on each prostitute for the purposes of defraying the expenses of said hospital.

4. That all public women found plying their vocation without license and certificate be at once arrested and incarcerated in the workhouse for a period of not less than 30 days.

Prostitute Licence for Anna Johnson, dated Nov. 24, 1863, in Nashville, Tennessee, signed by Provost Marshal Lt. Col. George Spalding. (National Archives)

As of April 30, 1864, 352 women were licensed, and 92 infected women had been treated in the new facility created for this problem. By early summer, licensing was extended to “colored prostitutes.”

The examinations were required every 14 days, later shortened to every 10 days. Those who passed were issued a certificate. Those who failed were sent to Hospital No. 11 (“the Female Venereal Hospital,” or “Pest House”), in the former residence of the Catholic bishop on Market Street, just north of Locust Street. The doctor assigned to the hospital was Surgeon R. Fletcher, US Volunteers. The matron, nurse, and cook are colored women. The provost marshal furnished guards, under orders to admit no one, under any pretext. The guards also enforced the rule prohibiting profane language; offenders were given solitary confinement. When women were cured they were “returned to duty.”

In a letter dated Aug. 15, 1864, Dr. Fletcher wrote:

“After the attempt to reduce disease by the forcible expulsion of the prostitutes had, as it always has, utterly failed, the more philosophic plan of recognizing and controlling an ineradicable evil has met with undoubted success.”

The Union Army also ran Hospital No. 15, with 140 beds for soldiers with venereal diseases, in a 3-story brick building near Summer Street, that had been a school before the war. In the 1860’s, antibiotics weren’t available. The remedy for syphilis in 1865 was salts of mercury, leading to the saying, “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.”

Nashville remains America’s first experiment with legalized, regulated prostitution.

One comment on “The Union Army licensed the "public women" of Smokey Row

  1. Hi Jennifer,
    Long time no see. I find it fascinating that you are writing historical fiction. I have a novel about Treadwell (1915-17) I am trying to get published, and have three sequels outlined (Thane (1921-23), Douglas (1936-37, and Juneau 1943-44) which I collectively refer to as the Gastineau Channel Quartet.

    I have had an alternative history novel published, “Russian Amerika” and the publisher is currently reading the sequel.

    I love the Civil War period and hope your manuscript gets decent treatment. have you read Owen Parry?

    Check out my minimal web page at
    Be well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s