While it should be obvious–since everyone living today who can trace an ancestor to the Civil War is in existence–the fact is that great-great grandpa and grandma had sex; in fact, judging from the size of nineteenth century families, they had sex quite a lot. No surprise here; but until one lone book on the subject came along, you would think nobody during the War Between the States ever did the dirty deed. In all the histories, academic studies, articles and scholarly monographs there was, with few exceptions, nary a mention: nada, nothing.
Then along came Dr. Thomas P. Lowry and his groundbreaking book, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Of course the information was there all along: in archives, libraries, family attics and even in some official reports. Luckily for us, all those hot letters great grandma wrote great grandpa and vice-versa were never looked at after the war and so were stored in an attic until donated sight unseen to some local library or archive. There is also the uncomfortable fact that young men, away from home for the first time in their lives, whether unmarried or married, frequently availed themselves of the pleasures of the flesh while posted in the major garrison towns that the Northern army occupied, such as Washington, DC, New Orleans and Nashville, Tennessee. Even in some of the more remote posts, prostitutes could and would ply their trade.
There was even one pamphlet that provided a guide to the cat houses of Washington. The section between what is today Pennsylvania Avenue and The Mall was an notorious red light district called Hooker’s Division. This was a play on words that referred to both the prostitutes that occupied neighborhood and their frequent customers–the troops in General Joe Hooker’s division–that were camped nearby. Needless to say, this was the origin of the term, Hooker.
Nashville, in particular, gained some notoriety for its army of whores who occupied the Rebel city shortly after the Yankees did. Of course military authorities were more concerned with prosecuting the war, and the prostitutes became something of an embarrassment; more importantly, in the days before penicillin, they also became a major health hazard. Federal authorities in the occupied Confederate state capitol tried various solutions to deal with the problem, even going to the length of rounding up the trollops, putting them aboard a steamship and sending them back north: unfortunately, no respectable Northern city wanted thousands of prostitutes descending on them and shipped the ladies of the evening right back from whence they came.
Finally, Military authorities in Nashville, failing to outlaw the Oldest Profession, hit upon the solution of regulating it. Col. George Spalding, Provost Marshall of Nashville, instituted a program of licensed prostitution. Military physicians routinely inspected the Soiled Doves, then issued a certificate that they were not infected, which in turn allowed them to ply their trade with the thousands of Union soldiers in the city. Ambrose Bierce, who was a lieutenant in the Army of the Cumberland during the war and who was in and out of Nashville all during the war, was certainly exposed to this situation; whether he was in and out of the loose women as well is not proven–but it would not have been unusual if he had been. In any case, his exposure to the abundance of so many shady ladies in his formative years may well have colored his later low opinion of women in general.
That there were women of low virtue in Nashville in such quantities, however, should not be taken to mean that all the women that Union soldiers came in contact with were of low morals. Most of the females in the city at the start of the war were of good family and since most were confirmed Secessionists, they at first had little interest in fraternizing with the hated Yankee invaders. However, Nashville was occupied in February of 1862 and remained in Union hands throughout the war, despite Rebel attempts to retake it. Eventually, many of the ladies of the South succumbed to the presence of so many eligible young men in their midst, despite their political differences.
That such relationships could be stormy perhaps goes without saying. General Gates P. Thruston, described his future bride when he first met her as, “a Secesh scratch-cat.” No doubt other Federal soldiers could tell a similar tale of their courtship of Southern ladies. When General Thruston finally married his beloved traitor, his future mother-in-law refused to attend the wedding if he wore his Yankee uniform: he did, so she didn’t. It is estimated that close to two hundred young women from Nashville and environs eventually married Union officers.
Of course, like the boys in blue, Southern gentlemen often did not behave like gentlemen when it came to sex in the Civil War. When the Confederates evacuated the stronghold of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi, the occupying Federal troops found a rear-guard of Confederate camp-followers still occupying the Rebel camp. The Yankees did not have to assault their breastworks to gain access to their favors: monetary compensation was sufficient.