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In July , a riverboat bearing important cargo sailed into Louisville on the Ohio River. Inside were over prostitutes from Nashville, women who had been forced onto the ship at the behest of Union Army officials trying to stem a public health crisis of sexually transmitted diseases.
They blamed the prostitutes for causing and spreading the diseases, which were nearly impossible to treat in a time before modern contraceptives or medical treatments, so they banished them from Nashville. In response, the city legalized prostitution in an attempt to prevent women with sexually transmitted infections from passing them along to large number of soldiers.
A license to protect sex workers, signed by George Spalding circa Modern research has shown that when sex work is legalized, sexually transmitted diseases fall—but over a century ago, the potential benefits of regulated sex work seemed clear even without those studies.
The brief but successful experiment only lasted through the end of the Civil War. But it proved the benefits of allowing sex workers to practice their trade publicly. Even with the primitive medical treatment available then, it seems to have been a remarkable success. Nashville had been occupied by Union soldiers since February , and served as a large garrison for soldiers from the North.
Though there were about prostitutes in the city before the Civil War began, the profession flourished and grew along with the Union occupation. A parade of soldiers in Union-occupied Nashville, circa March Smokey Row, in what is now downtown Nashville, went from an uncomfortable city secret to a thriving red-light district with some 1, prostitutes.