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HARDTACK and HARD TIMES: Nashville's Infamous "Smokey Row"

June 15th, 2014 7:21 pm by Ned Jilton

HARDTACK and HARD TIMES: Nashville's Infamous "Smokey Row"

A painting by Constantin Guys (1802-1892), an illustrator for British and French newspapers, show prostitutes in the 1850's.

One of the liveliest topics discussed on the buses to the battlefield tours during the recent Civil War convention was prostitution during the war and Nashville's "Smokey Row".

On the first day's tour in Nashville historian Gary Adelman mentioned that the bus was passing through the area of the infamous "Smokey Row". This caught the attention of the college student riding next to me as she said she was researching Civil War prostitution for a paper. The second day historian Thomas Cartwright also noted the location of "Smokey Row" and entertained the group with stories about it as the bus rolled out of town towards Franklin and Spring Hill.

What is "Smokey Row" some of you may be asking.

"Smokey Row" was a four block long row of shacks, almost with-in the shadow of the capitol building in Nashville, where before the start of the war roughly 200 "women of the town" conducted their business. After Nashville fell to Federal forces the number of prostitutes swelled to about 1500 as they flocked to the town following the army.

With this influx of prostitutes combined with the unsanitary conditions it wasn't long before the women of "Smokey Row" were inflicting more casualties on the Yankee army in Nashville than the Confederate army did. So many men were being inflicted with sexually transmitted disease that they were crowding out the wounded from the Battle of Stones River.

With the situation growing worse by the day the army took drastic action. The Provost Marshall, Lt-Col George Spalding ordered the round-up of all "Cyprians" and their belongings and had them loaded onto the steamboat named the "Idahoe" (No Joke the boat's name was Idahoe, I-da-hoe, it got a nice round of laughter on the bus). The ladies were then shipped off to Louisville, KY.

When the "Idahoe" arrived in Louisville, the boat was met at the docks and the passengers were informed that the city did not want them. The "Idahoe" continued on and attempted to unload its cargo in Cincinnati, OH, where they were again refused landing. After a month going from town to town along the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers the captain returned to Nashville and unloaded his unwanted cargo on the docks there.

When the women returned to Nashville they found that more prostitutes had arrived and taken their place. The army now had a bigger problem than before and a new strategy was needed. It was then that the Provost Marshall, Lt. Col. Spalding, came up with a new plan that's typically military, Army rules and regulations for prostitution.

First, all women wishing to be a prostitute must report to the provost marshal's office and apply for a license, paying a fee of $5 plus filling out paperwork with name, place of business and such, which was kept on file at the provost marshal's office.

Second, the prostitute was to report regularly to the designated army doctor for inspection. If the lady passed inspection she would be issued a certificate of soundness allowing her to ply her avocation in Nashville.

Third, any unlicensed or uncertified women caught in the act of prostitution would be arrested and sentenced to labor at the workhouse for 30 days.

Finally there would be two hospitals designated to handle cases of sexually transmitted disease, one for the soldiers (hospital #11) and a separate one for the prostitutes, (hospital #15). The cost of the hospitals was to be covered by a weekly prostitute tax of 50 cents on the ladies.

The regulations quickly went into effect as prostitutes eagerly sought the license and certificate. In a short time there were more than 500 approved prostitutes and the disease rate dropped radically. So successful was the program that the army quickly established the same thing in Memphis and has used the plan in some form in almost every war fought since.

Thanks to "Smokey Row" and the Yankee army the city of Nashville might be the first city in the United States to have legalized prostitution.

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