Fifty Shades of Blue: Sex and the Single Soldier

An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere.  Civil War "patriotic" envelope.

An officer orders his men to attention, but their attention is elsewhere. Civil War “patriotic” envelope.

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.

"Hookers Division" was the nickname given to the Washington DC red light district during the Civil War.  Some say General Hooker was their best customer.

“Hookers Division” was the nickname given to the Washington DC red light district during the Civil War. Some say General Hooker was their best customer.

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.

A rare photo of Civil War prostitutes.  Although originally mislabeled as "laundry women," based on his knowledge of Civil War Nashville, Jim Hoobler, Curator of the State Capitol, has identified this photo as a candid shot of  prostitutes, infected with venereal disease and quarantined in a military hospital in Nashville by authorities during the war.  via TSLA

A rare photo of Civil War prostitutes. Although originally mislabeled as “laundry women,” based on his knowledge of Civil War Nashville, Jim Hoobler, Curator of the State Capitol, has identified this photo as a candid shot of prostitutes, infected with venereal disease and quarantined in a military hospital in Nashville by authorities during the war. via TSLA

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.

General Gates Thruston later married and settled in Nashville, earning the respect and admiration of many men he'd fought against during the war.

General Gates Thruston later married and settled in Nashville, earning the respect and admiration of many men he’d fought against during the war.

Gates P. Thruston as a young officer.  He was ordered to jail the man who would later be his father-in-law.

Gates P. Thruston as a young officer. He was ordered to jail the man who would later be his father-in-law.

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.

For more on other esoteric aspects of the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was posted in Ambrose Bierce, General Hooker, Hooker's Division, Nashville, Prostitution, SEX and the Civil War, Southern women and Yankee men, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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