Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Stephen V. Ash

Committee Members

Lynn Sacco, Daniel Feller


This study examines prostitution in Union-occupied cities during the American Civil War. During the war, the visibility of urban prostitution triggered contentious public debates over appropriate forms of sexuality and over the position of sexualized women in public areas. Union commanders posted in occupied cities had an especially difficult time dealing with prostitution since their garrison troops had money, were not preoccupied by marching and fighting, and expected urban pleasures in an urban environment. For example, military authorities in Washington, D. C., Norfolk, Virginia, and New Orleans, Louisiana, unsuccessfully struggled to control or eliminate public prostitution using traditional legal systems.

The provost marshals of Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee met with more success when they began the first American experiment in legalized prostitution. The military hoped that regulation, which required sex workers to purchase licenses and pass medical exams, would curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Although both prostitutes and Union soldiers seem to have benefited from legalization, civilians vehemently and publicly proclaimed its negative effects on society. Despite the experiment’s medical and financial success, civic authorities deregulated the sex trade once the war ended and the military governance ceased. In this thesis, based on contemporary newspapers, correspondence, and military records, I argue that this postwar deregulation was a reaction against the prostitutes’ wartime encroachment on public space.

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