Prostitution and the Civil War

By Annika Jensen ’18

It was to my slight disappointment that I found out that the term “hooker,” one of many referring to prostitutes (or, as they were called during the Civil War era, “public women), is not actually a play on the name of Joseph Hooker, the infamous and promiscuous Union general. Fighting Joe may, however, have helped elevate the term to its current popularity; after all, a certain red light district in Washington, D.C. was dubbed “Hooker’s Division.”

Pushing past the etymology, however, I discovered a vast array of sources, anecdotes, and documents leading to the world of prostitution in the Civil War era. In an earlier post I explored the prudish nature of domestic sex, a topic not often discussed or even performed. Indeed, prostitution and sex work was held in contempt by the majority of Victorian society: William Quesenbury Claytor on Virginia penned in his diary in 1852 that “impudent prostitutes” were often seen in Alexandria at night, and Union officer Josiah Marshall Favill wrote that in the same city in 1862 houses were “thronged” with sex workers. As discouraged and taboo as the practice was, however, it continued to expand and thrive during the Civil War era.

Sexually transmitted diseases indicate the prevalence of prostitution during the war itself; an estimated 8.2% of Federal soldiers were diagnosed with either syphilis or gonorrhea throughout the war, and far more likely went undiagnosed. These venereal diseases were a tremendous setback for the army, as treatment could put troops out of combat for long periods of time; officers had to ensure discipline and order to keep their men from frequenting brothels. Such problems proved especially prevalent in Union-occupied Southern cities like Nashville and New Orleans.

compiler prostititues nice
General Benjamin Butler enforced harsh discipline on the people of Union-occupied New Orleans; he is noted for threatening to publicly denounce women as prostitutes if they acted out against his soldiers. This editorial cartoon illustrates the resulting change in behavior.

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A New Angle on the Freedmen’s Bureau: A Conversation with James Downs

Jim Downs
Jim Downs. Image courtesy of Connecticut College.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with James Downs. Downs is an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College. He recently published Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012), which tells the largely unknown story of the many former slaves who died at the moment of freedom. Dr. Downs has also published on the representations of slavery in museums and historic landmarks in the United States, England, and the Bahamas. He is currently working on two book projects—the first on the international outbreak of the 19th-century cholera epidemics, and the second on the history of sexuality. The recent recipient of a prestigious New Directions Fellowship, Dr. Downs is spending the 2015-2016 academic year on sabbatical as an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at Harvard University.

CWI: What was the Freedmen’s Bureau? Who operated it, and what purposes did it serve?

DOWNS: The Freedmen’s Bureau was a federal government agency that helped to ease former bondspeople’s transition from slavery to freedom. Established by Congress in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, the Freedmen’s Bureau negotiated labor contracts; established provisional schools; constructed schools and began the first-ever system of federal medical care—building over forty hospitals, employing over 120 physicians, and treating an estimated one million formerly enslaved people. Continue reading “A New Angle on the Freedmen’s Bureau: A Conversation with James Downs”

“Nature’s Civil War”: An interview with Dr. Kathryn Shively Meier

By Tyler Leard ’16

Dr Kathryn Shively Meier will be speaking at the 2014 Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference on the War in 1864 during which she will lead a session on Jubal Early’s 1864 Valley Campaign. She will also conduct a dine-in session on psychological warfare in the 1864 Overland Campaign. Her first book, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia , examines the relationship between soldiers and the environment in 1862 Virginia, with a focus on the Peninsula and the Shenandoah Valley. She is currently a Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Dr. Kathryn Shively Meier

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