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.