The Union's Party Barge Was Something of a Disaster



Over at the Smithsonian's Past Imperfect blog, there's a great post on the story of Nashville's Civil War prostitutes, starting out with the terrible but hilarious attempt to round up all of Nashville's prostitutes, put them on a paddle boat, and send them to Louisville.

Finding Nashville prostitutes was easy, but how was [George Spalding, provost marshal of Nashville] to expel them? He hit upon the answer by the second week in July, when he met John Newcomb, owner of a brand-new steamboat recently christened the Idahoe. To Newcomb’s horror, Spalding (backed by Rosecrans and other officials) ordered Newcomb to take the Idahoe on a maiden voyage northward (ideally to Louisville, but Spalding wasn’t particular) with 111 of Nashville’s most infamous sex workers as passengers. Newcomb and his crew of three were given rations enough to last the passengers to Louisville, but otherwise they were on their own. The local press delighted in the story, encouraging readers to “bid goodbye to those frail sisters once and for all.”


Desperate to get the remaining 98 women and six children off his ship, Newcomb returned the Idahoe to Louisville, where it was once again turned away, and by early August the Cincinnati Gazette was proven correct — the ship returned to Nashville, leaving Spalding exactly where he’d started, plus with a hefty bill from Newcomb. Demanding compensation for damages to his ship, Newcomb insisted someone from the Army perform an inspection. On August 8, 1863, a staffer reporting to Rosecrans found that the ship’s stateroom had been “badly damaged, the mattresses badly soiled,” and recommended Newcomb be paid $1,000 in damages, plus $4,300 to cover the food and “medicine peculiar to the diseased of women in this class” the Idahoe’s owner had been forced to pay for during the 28-day excursion.

But this isn't even the best part of the story. When the women came home, they came home to a Nashville in which prostitution was legal. Spalding had decided that it would be easier to keep Union soldiers healthy if prostitutes were licensed and subjected to regular doctors' appointments, rather than trying to rid the city of prostitutes. And it worked!

It seems to me that the fact that legalizing prostitution and licensing sex workers worked to lower rates of STIs is as good an argument as any for returning to legalized prostitution. I also think it would make sex workers' jobs safer. Health care professionals and the licensing agency would notice if someone stopped coming around and could ask after his or her well-being. It also seems like it would make sex trafficking more difficult since it would require regular positive interactions with the authorities, thus providing regular opportunities for someone to figure out that something not-right was happening.

Plus we have a great, conservative reason to legalize prostitution — if it was good enough for our ancestors, it is good enough for us.

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