In nineteenth century Nashville, during the Civil War the health conditions were appalling. Horse manure, open sewers, dead animals strewn about the streets, infectious diseases, out houses and urine created an abysmal, stinking setting. The City Council tried to take some measure against small pox, caused, they believed, by runaway slaves, or “contraband” while the army expelled prostitutes from the town in what would become a failed effort to eliminate venereal diseases, as great a threat to the army as the bullets of Rebels. The owner of the steamboat the army seized to transfer the prostitutes (a.k.a. “Cyprians”) had to petition the Federal government for reparations to cover the damage done to his ship done by the courtesans.
“City Council-Public Health.”
To-morrow evening there will be a meeting of the Common Council, and also of the City Council; the latter to elect a Board of Education, and the former to receive and act upon reports presented from the various Departments. Among the reports will be found one of great importance to every citizen, and resident-it is that of Spencer Chandler, the City agent of the Pest House. From it we learn that the small-pox is on the decline-the white patients being reduced from 18 to 7, and the black from 18 to 16. These figures would be a cause of congratulation were it not for one fact, namely, that the slight reduction of cases among the negroes is rather accidental than as indicative of any real check to the progress of the disease.
Mr. Chandler, than whom none are better qualified to judge, fears an increase not only of small pox, but of other diseases, among the blacks, unless some measures be adopted by the civil or military authorities, or both, to place the contrabands in healthy encampments, with guards and overseers to see after their health and morals. These contrabands are scattered over the city and suburbs, and are crowded together by dozens and fifties [sic], many of the men living in idleness, some by thieving, a large number of the women by prostitution, and all in filth, breeding disease, which will spread like wildfire over the city. So barefaced are these black prostitutes becoming, that they parade the streets, and even the public square, by day and night.
An order has just been received notifying all the white prostitutes to leave town immediately. Why not issue a similar order against the blacks? If military necessity demands the removal of the first, it certainly will require the latter, if the police and our own eyes are to be believed.
But leaving morality out of the question, let us look at the case in a sanitary point of view. Mr. Chandler tells us that wherever he finds a case of small pox among colored people, the house from which it is removed is crowded with inmates. How many of these inmates of a filthy den have contracted the disease? Among how many others will they spread it? How long [a] time will elapse before it breaks out in camps, or in hospitals?-(for many of the occupants of these dens spend their days in hospitals). These are questions to be reflected upon seriously by our City Fathers, if they would preserve the health of the city.
Mr. Chandler has already consulted with Gov. Johnson on the subject of encamping all contrabands in a healthy locality, and we are informed he looks favorably upon the subject, and Mr. C. recommends that proper measures be taken to carry out his suggestions, or some other, to preserve the health of the town. We commend the subject to the Common Council, feeling confident the will do what seemeth best to them.
Nashville Dispatch, July 9, 1863.
“Departure of the Cyprians.”
Yesterday [8th] a large number of women of ill-fame were embarked upon three or four steamers, and transported northward. The number has been estimated at from one thousand to fourteen hundred-probably five or six hundred would near the mark. Where they are consigned to, we are not advised, but suspect the authorities of the city in which they landed will feel proud of such an acquisition to their population. We hope the commanding officer will issue an order as soon as possible, ordering off all contraband prostitutes -- they contribute considerably more toward the demoralization of the army than any equal number of white women, and certainly have no more claims upon our sympathy.
Nashville Dispatch, July 9, 1863.
The statement of John M. Newcomb seeking reimbursement for damages sustained to the steamship Idahoe in July relative to damages to the “floating whore house.”
Washington D. C.
August 16, 1865
Hon. E. M. Stanton
Secy. of War
I must respectfully beg leave to draw your attention to the following statement of facts in relation to my claim for subsisting 111 prostitutes from Nashville, Tenn., to Cincinnati, Ohio, and back to Nashville, on board my steamer “Idahoe.”
On the 8th of July 1863, while my boat was under charter by U. S. [sic] and in service at Nashville these prostitutes were put on board of her by a detachment of soldiers who were ordered to do so by Lt. Col. Spaulding, pro.[vost] mar.[shal] gen. [eral] and Capt. Stubbs, asst. quartermaster who were acting under orders of Gen. Morgan. I protested against their putting these women on my boat. She being a new boat, only three months built, her furniture new, and a fine passenger boat. I told them it would forever ruin her reputation as a passenger boat if they were put upon her. (It has done so. She is not and has since been known as the floating whore house [sic]) and pointed out to them old boats that were in the service at the time which would have answered the purpose as well as mine, but no, they said I must take them. Being in the employ of the govt. and the control of Capt. Stubbs the quartermaster, I was compelled to keep them on my boat. On the same day that they were put on board I was ordered to start with them to Louisville. I asked Capt. Stubbs how these women were to be subsisted & he told me I would have to see Gen. Morgan about that. I saw Gen. Morgan and he told me to subsist them myself. I entreated of him to let the gov’t subsist them, that it could do much less [sic] (more?) than I could. His reply was, “you subsist them.” When I found Gen. Morgan determined that I should subsist them, I had to buy meat and vegetables at enormous high prices [sic] from storeboats along the river, and in addition at many places to buy ice and medicines, these women being diseased and more than one half of them sick in bed. I applied to other commissary’s of sub. [sic] along the route, for commissary stores, to feed these women; but at each place was refused by the officer in charge, and the civil as well as the military authorities would not allow my boat to land, and put guards along the shore to prevent me from doing so. When leaving Nashville I applied for a guard to be put on board. Gen. Morgan told me I did not need any, but to take charge of them myself. Having no guard I could not keep men along the route from coming on board to these women, when at anchor, and being angered because I strove to drive them away both themselves and these bad women destroyed and damaged my boat and her furniture to a great extent. When I arrived at Louisville I stated my grievances to Gen. Boyle and he gave me a guard and ordered me to proceed to Cincinnati and await further orders there. I remained in the stream opposite Cincinnati because I would not be allowed to land for thirteen days, when I was ordered to Nashville again with my cargo of prostitutes.
I wish to say to your honor that I was compelled to subsist these women, that it cost me all that I have made a charge for to do so, that the claim is merely a reimbursement of my money which I had to expend while complying with the orders of the officers of the United States government; that I could not have this money he returned me at the place where I was ordered to perform this service because officers who ordered me would not direct a settlement of my account to be made. I had to leave my business and travel from Cincinnati to this place to see if I could collect it-it being over two years due me. I am here now one week going from one office to another, to see to get my papers, and to effect a settlement,1 which I have not yet done, unless your honor will please direct payment of this account so justly due me, and for a long time.
The enclosed order from the officers directing me to perform this duty are herewith respectfully submitted for your consideration.
Your Obt. Servt.
John M. Newcomb
Statement of John McComb.2
1 Newcomb was reimbursed in full in October 1865.
2 TSLA, Record Group 29, B.23, f.19.