In 1860, before the Civil War began, Nashville had 20,000 residents and was the 8th largest city in the South. Steamboats on the busy Cumberland River and four railroads converged on the booming city. With the easy movement men, supplies, and artillery, Union General William Rosecrans believed Nashville was an ideal location to base and train troops.

Before Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland occupied Nashville in February of 1862, the city had 207 prostitutes. When the Army’s 100,000 soldiers got to town, an army of 1,500 prostitutes soon followed. The new industry in the city’s Smokey Row was booming. By the spring of 1863, Rosecrans and his staff were in a frenzy over the potential impact of all that cavorting. Syphilis and gonorrhea infected at least 8.2 percent of Union soldiers by the end of the War. Venereal disease was almost as dangerous to Civil War soldiers as combat, and simply (and painfully) getting the treatments could sideline a man for weeks.

First, Rosecrans tried to order all the prostitutes out of the city. In early July 1863, Rosecrans ordered Nashville Provost Marshall Lt. Col George Spalding to immediately “seize and transport to Louisville all prostitutes found in the city or known to be here.” Two hundred prostitutes were rounded up and shipped off on a riverboat to Louisville. Not surprisingly, the city fathers met the boat at dock and prevented the women from leaving the boat. At Cincinnati the result was the same, and for a month the boat tried, unsuccessfully, to release its passengers at different cities on the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. By the time the boat returned to Nashville, new prostitutes had already replaced those on the boat and the Army now had a bigger problem than before.

Rosecrans and Spalding came up with a new plan. Prostitutes would apply to the provost marshal’s office for a license, which cost $5. After that, each prostitute reported weekly, paid a fifty cent fee to an army doctor for inspection, and if she was free of disease, issued a certification. Any unlicensed or uncertified prostitute would be arrested and sentenced to 30 days labor at the workhouse. The regulations quickly went into effect as prostitutes eagerly sought the license and certificate so they could operate without fear of arrest. The disease rate fell fast and dramatically, and the nation’s first large scale legal prostitution endeavor was a success.

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