Prostitution experienced its largest growth during 1861–1865. Some historians have speculated that this growth can be attributed to a depression, and the need for women to support themselves and their families while their husbands were away at war. Other historians considered the growth of prostitution to be related to the women wanting to spread venereal disease to the opposing troops.
The term “public women” was coined for the women that became prostitutes. There was moral outrage at this rising employment, and law officials classified the people they arrested as such. The word “hooker” predates the Civil War, but became popularized due to Union General Joseph Hooker’s reputation of consorting with prostitutes. After the outbreak of war, the number of brothels skyrocketed. “In 1864 there were 450 brothels in Washington, and over 75 brothels in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. A newspaper estimated there were 5000 public women in the District and another 2500 in Alexandria and Georgetown, bringing the total to 7500 by the war’s third year”. However, it was the towns located just outside the camps where prostitution was most prominent. These small towns were overrun by the sex trade when army troops set up nearby camps. One soldier wrote home to his wife, “It is said that one house in every ten is a bawdy house—it is a perfect Sodom.”
The most notorious area for prostitution was in Tennessee. Before the outbreak of the war, Nashville recorded 207 prostitutes; however, in 1863 reports claimed to have at least 1500 prostitutes. The area where these prostitutes could be found was known as Smokey Row. In an infamous campaign to rid the city of the “public women”, Lt. Col. George Spalding loaded the women on to the steamboat Idahoe. The women were sent to Louisville, where they were not allowed off the ship and sent further along to Cincinnati. Many of the women became sick due to lack of food and were forced to turn around and return to Nashville. Once they arrived back in Nashville, Lt. Col. Spaulding created a system of registration similar to European ones. He inadvertently created the first legal system of prostitution. This is the set of regulations he set up:
- 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.
- 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 certificate soundness to those who are healthy and ordering into hospital those who are in the slightest degree diseased.
- That a building suitable for a hospital for the invalids be taken for that purpose, and that a weekly tax of fifty cents be levied on each prostitute for the purpose of defraying the expense of said hospital.
- That all public women found plying their vocation without a license and certificate be at once arrested and incarcerated in the workhouse for a period of not less than thirty days.