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When we think of Civil War medicine, we often think of gore, like amputated limbs and bloody gunshot wounds. Americans of the Civil War era were no prudes. While sex was certainly not a topic for polite conversation or reputation-minded members of the middle class, people still had complex desires.
During the antebellum, the middle class impulse toward reform moved many Americans to attack prostitution as a social evil. Fancy women, as Chief Surgeon Summers calls them, gathered wherever soldier-clients could be found, particularly cities like Alexandria or military camps. This could prove difficult for even the most loyal of husbands. For example, Samuel Cormany, though otherwise happily married, committed adultery against his wife Rachel while serving in the 16 th Pennsylvania Infantry.
A prostitution licence from the Nashville experiment. Courtesy of the National Archives. A natural result of paid and largely unprotected sex during the Civil War was venereal disease, specifically gonorrhea and syphilis. Jordan, for example, wrote home to his wife in that though health in his regiment was good, they were dealing with a certain kind of disease: It is the Pocks [ syphilis ] and the Clap [ gonorrhea ]. In an attempt to stop the spread of syphilis through the ranks of the Union army, officials in Tennessee began an initiative that would evaluate the health of prostitutes, and provide those deemed free from disease with a license to ply their trade.
The women found to have venereal diseases were warehoused in hospitals without their consent — their clients, on the other hand, suffered no punishment. Similar measures were also taken in Memphis. While this bore the appearance of profiting both working women and soldiers, it privileged the health of the fighting force over the bodily autonomy of prostitutes.
Her scholarly interests include medicine, gender, disability, and war studies. A History of Sexuality in America Chicago: University of Chicago Press, , , , Syphilis alone had plagued European armies and navies since at least Arnold, Health Under Fire: Greenwood Press, , University of Pittsburgh Press, , Sex in the Civil War Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, , Subscribe to our Blog Enter your email address below to be notified when new blog posts are published.