Between Nashville’s downtown and also its riverfront, displayed below soon after the Civil War, was a space dubbed “Smokey Row” where wartime Nashville’s “red light district” was centered. The ubiquity of sexually transmitted conditions in Nashville among occupying soldiers brought about the nation’s first system of prostitution being licensed, monitored and regulated.

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This old illustration reflects Union troops marching in development in Nashville after that city was inhabited by Federals.


In an effort to shrink the difficulty of S.T.D.s among Union soldiers in Civil War Nashville, military officials began licensing and also regulating the rampant prostitution in that city. Above is a prostitution license for a woguy named Annie Johnkid.

One of the comes to in the existing pandemic has actually been whether our medical units can handle the patient load need to things acquire worse prior to they acquire much better.

A comparable trouble faced Tennessee’s capital city of Nashville around a century-and-a-half ago. The Civil War was on and battles such as the one at Stone’s River were generating a flood of wounded soldiers along with the usual high volume of sick ones, not to cite civilians through their own clinical demands. Numbers of that latter team were swelling steadily as civilization from various other parts of Tennesview came to Nashville in hope of refuge.

Even through other buildings such as church dwellings, colleges and also private homes being commandeered as makechange clinical centers, it was flourishing tough to discover hospital or clinic beds adequate to the demand. The trouble wasn’t some garden-range flu or other general condition. In Union-lived in wartime Nashville, something significantly heightening the trouble was sexually transmitted illness, spurred on by widespread prostitution and away-from-house soldiers willing to patronize it.

James Boyd Jones Jr., in his 1985 study titled “A Tale of Two Cities: The Hidden Battle versus Venereal Disease in Civil War Nashville and Memphis,” provided the prominence of Nashville and Memphis as logistical, supply and clinical centers during the duration they were occupied by the Union. This assured that Nashville would have a high population of soldiers.

And as Jones wrote: “Wbelow soldiers collected it was nearly axiomatic that prostitutes would collect too. Indeed, the trouble presented by prostitution and venegenuine condition ... became a difficulty of significant meaning in Nashville and Memphis. According to official documents ... incidence was better ‘among troops stationed in the vicinity of cities than among those on active business.’”

Even prior to the war, Nashville, like most cities, had actually a certain area where prostitution prospered. Called “Smokey Row,” it was not much from the Capitol structure. Before the battle, around 200 prostitutes operated tright here, both as streetwalkers and also brothel employees. After the Union populated the city at an early stage in 1862, prostitution skyrocketed and Nashville had actually around 1,500 “public women” within its bounds.

The backstories of these women often were sad ones of being left alone to carry out for their families via husbands off at battle or dead, leaving them with few alternatives for themselves. Many kind of such wound up on Smovital Row, an area virtually a mile long and around 2 blocks wide, in the vicinity of what is now First, Second, Third, and also 4th Avenues in Nashville.

An Ohio personal stationed in Nashville composed that it was typically sassist among the troops there that “no guy could be a soldier unless he had actually gone via Smokey Row . . . eextremely residence or shanty on both sides was a home of ill fame. Women had no believed of dress or decency. They said Smoessential Row killed more soldiers than the battle.”

Brigadier General R. S. Granger reported being “day-to-day and also virtually hourly beset” by regimental commanders and surgeons wanting to rid the city of “the diseased prostitutes infesting it.”

Some medical professionals in Nashville, recognizing a prepared market, advertised treatments for “personal conditions.” In those days before penicillin, many type of such therapies connected mercury, which is highly toxic. “An hour with Venus, a life time through Mercury,” one saying went.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine states: “Union officials in Nashville, particular the city’s ladies of the night were responsible for the sexual afflict, hit upon what seemed choose the most basic solution: If they couldn’t soptimal soldiers from visiting regional prostitutes, local prostitutes might simply be made not-regional.”

To kick that process off, a full of 111 of Nashville’s the majority of notorious prostitutes (ranging from adolescents up to one older than 70) were rounded up and also put onto a commandeered steamwatercraft referred to as the “Idahoe” (a specifically unfortunate name in this context) and sent up the river to Louisville. Louisville shelp no thanks and also sent out the steamer amethod, still loaded through its “cyprians.” Other cities verified equally unwelcoming, and also the steamwatercraft headed ago to Nashville and the “soiled doves” “cyprians” or “daughters of sin” went back to their previous lifelayouts.

The unexplained group’s leave-and-rerotate steamwatercraft journey was no pleasure cruise, nor was tbelow anything glamorous about the woguys themselves.

According to the webwebsite, one Ohio newspaper reported: “The majority are a homely, forlorn set of degraded creatures ... many are without a readjust of wardrobe. They controlled to smuggle a tiny liquor on board, which provided out on the second day. Several came to be intoxicated and indulged in a cost-free fight, which resulted without product damages to any type of of the party, although knives were freely provided.”

An inspection of the steamwatercraft upon its go back to Tenneswatch revealed that the woguys had actually greatly traburned it, leaving it filthy and damaged. The boat’s captain, who had not wanted to be connected in the procedure anymethod, sent the Federals a bill.

Plan A had actually failed for Nashville, so a Plan B was developed. If prostitution couldn’t be quit or handed off to various other cities, possibly the a lot of useful idea wregarding attempt to gain regulate over it and also control it.

So in August of 1863, Nashville’s prostitutes were ordered to register via the armed forces government, which in turn would license them, provide them recurring medical checkups (hospitalizing and also dealing with at no added expense those who proved to be transferring disease) in exchange for an initial registration fee of $5 and a followup weekly fee of 50 cents. Failure to register might be penalized through a 30-day workhome sentence.

Dramatic and radical as the idea of essentially legalizing prostitution must have actually seemed to many type of, the idea acquired ground. City leaders didn’t stand also in its way, supposedly seeing it as the many valuable way to minimize a problem instance.

Unregulated prostitution lessened, and prostitutes who registered delighted in the advantage of clinical treatment and some feeling of defense. S.T.D.s did not vanish, but did decrease, and also when soldiers became infected the majority of times it was discovered to have taken place as a result of trysts that emerged outside of Nashville.

Two Nashville hospitals, one for soldiers and one for prostitutes, were devoted to the treatment of S.T.D.s.

One unintended-but-predictable consequence of Nashville’s bold innovation was that prostitutes from various other cities started moving to Tennessee’s funding because they viewed the regulated device tbelow to offer them more safety.

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The regulation/licensing system didn’t lengthy outlast the battle, nor did it become a historical “first” that Nashville chose to emphasize going forward. It is, but, taken into consideration to be the first incidence of “legalized prostitution” in the United States, and also remains a quirky bit of Americana well over a century after the first wide-eyed young soldier wandered onto Smocrucial Row to lose his innocence and in its area possibly acquire a dreadful disease or two.

Cameron Judd is a lifelong Tennessean born and also increased in Cookeville and also a Greene County resident given that 1982, once he first joined The Greeneville Sun staff. He additionally is an extensively published writer of western and frontier fiction, having actually worked with a number of major publishing homes. In 2019 he won a first-area Tennescheck out Press Association award for his individual column, “Clips To Keep.”