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In July , a riverboat bearing important cargo sailed into Louisville on the Ohio River. Inside were over prostitutes from Nashville, women who had been forced onto the ship at the behest of Union Army officials trying to stem a public health crisis of sexually transmitted diseases. They blamed the prostitutes for causing and spreading the diseases, which were nearly impossible to treat in a time before modern contraceptives or medical treatments, so they banished them from Nashville.
In response, the city legalized prostitution in an attempt to prevent women with sexually transmitted infections from passing them along to large number of soldiers. A license to protect sex workers, signed by George Spalding circa Modern research has shown that when sex work is legalized, sexually transmitted diseases fall—but over a century ago, the potential benefits of regulated sex work seemed clear even without those studies.
The brief but successful experiment only lasted through the end of the Civil War. But it proved the benefits of allowing sex workers to practice their trade publicly. Even with the primitive medical treatment available then, it seems to have been a remarkable success. Nashville had been occupied by Union soldiers since February , and served as a large garrison for soldiers from the North.
Though there were about prostitutes in the city before the Civil War began, the profession flourished and grew along with the Union occupation. A parade of soldiers in Union-occupied Nashville, circa March Smokey Row, in what is now downtown Nashville, went from an uncomfortable city secret to a thriving red-light district with some 1, prostitutes. Many of the women were Southerners who became sex workers to earn a living after their male family members went to war. With the increased numbers of both prostitutes and clients came diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis.
Dubbs, a Union private. Women had no thought of dress or decency. They say Smokey Row killed more soldiers than the war. In a time before modern condoms and antibiotics, venereal disease was both seen as an inevitable consequence of war and the fault of prostitutes. One in 11 Union soldiers contracted a sexually transmitted disease during the war. But in Nashville, the problem was seen as particularly bad. And so, in July , the Union provost marshal, George Spalding, began rounding up prostitutes and forcing them onto the Idahoe.