Sex in the American Civil War

During the American Civil War, sexual behavior and attitudes, like many other aspects of life, were affected by the conflict. The advent of photography and easier media distribution, for example, allowed for greater access to sexual material for the common soldier.

In camp

At camp, "barracks favorites" were available. These were inexpensive novels of a sexual nature. Photographs of nudity were available as well, and were purchased by both enlisted men and officers. These twelve by fifteen inch pictures cost $1.20 for a dozen, or ten cents for a single picture. These were usually pictures of nude women doing innocent things; nude women that were engaging in actual sexual activity were usually not white, but either black or Native American. With the soldiers being far away from their wives and sweethearts, it is far more likely these were used for masturbation, and not just for entertainment.[1] Only three of the novels are still known to exist; they are located at the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.[2]

However, this is not to say females were not available for sex. Prostitutes were among the camp followers following behind marching troops. Popular legend has it that they were so common around the Army of the Potomac when Union general Joseph Hooker was in command that the term "hooker" was coined to describe them; however, the term had been in use since 1845. The number of prostitutes around Hooker's division only "cemented" the term.[3]

This led to many cases of venereal disease. Among white Union soldiers there was a total of 73,382 syphilis cases and 109,397 gonorrhea cases. The total rate of VD among the white Union troops was 82 cases per 1000 men, where before and after the war the rate was 87 of 1000. Union black troops, however, had rates of 34 per 1000 for syphilis and 44 per 1000 for gonorrhea.[4] Cases were most prominent around larger cities like Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans; Richmond, Virginia; and Washington, D.C.. Numbers for Confederates are unknown, but are assumed less due to Confederate soldiers being less likely to be in cities.[5]


Prostitution experienced its largest growth during 1861–1865. Some historians have speculated that this growth can be attributed to a depression, and the need for women to support themselves and their families while their husbands were away at war. Other historians considered the growth of prostitution to be related to the women wanting to spread venereal disease to the opposing troops.[6] The term "public women" was coined for the women that became prostitutes. There was moral outrage at this rising employment, and law officials classified the people they arrested as such.[7] The word "hooker" predates the Civil War, but became popularized due to Union General Joseph Hooker's reputation of consorting with prostitutes.[8] After the outbreak of war, the number of brothels skyrocketed. "In 1864 there were 450 brothels in Washington, and over 75 brothels in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. A newspaper estimated there were 5000 public women in the District and another 2500 in Alexandria and Georgetown, bringing the total to 7500 by the war’s third year".[9] However, it was the towns located just outside the camps where prostitution was most prominent. These small towns were overrun by the sex trade when army troops set up nearby camps. One soldier wrote home to his wife, "It is said that one house in every ten is a bawdy house—it is a perfect Sodom."[10]

The most notorious area for prostitution was in Tennessee. Before the outbreak of the war, Nashville recorded 207 prostitutes; however, in 1863 reports claimed to have at least 1500 prostitutes. The area where these prostitutes could be found was known as Smokey Row.[11] In an infamous campaign to rid the city of the "public women", Lt. Col. George Spalding loaded the women on to the steamboat Idahoe. The women were sent to Louisville, where they were not allowed off the ship and sent further along to Cincinnati. Many of the women became sick due to lack of food and were forced to turn around and return to Nashville. Once they arrived back in Nashville, Lt. Col. Spaulding created a system of registration similar to European ones. He inadvertently created the first legal system of prostitution.[12] This is the set of regulations he set up:

  1. That a license be issued to each prostitute, a record of which shall be kept at this office, together with the number and street of her residence.
  2. That one skillful surgeon be appointed as a Board of Examination whose duty it shall be to examine personally every week, each licensed prostitute, giving certificate soundness to those who are healthy and ordering those into hospital those who are in the slightest degree diseased.
  3. That a building suitable for a hospital for the invalids be taken for that purpose, and that a weekly tax of fifty cents be levied on each prostitute for the purpose of defraying the expense of said hospital.
  4. That all public women found plying their vocation without a license and certificate be at once arrested and incarcerated in the workhouse for a period of not less than thirty days.[13]

Prostitution experienced a large growth and spread across the North and South, and was one of the few industries to cross enemy lines throughout the duration of the war.

Female soldiers

The number of female soldiers in the War is estimated at between 400 and 750, although an accurate count is impossible because the women had to disguise themselves as men.[14] A Union officer was once quoted regarding how a Union sergeant was "in violation of all military law" by giving birth to child, and this was not the only case where the true sex of a soldier was discovered due to childbirth. A captured Confederate officer whose true gender was previously unknown by the guards gave birth in a Union prison camp.[15]


Some soldiers engaged in acts of rape. The Confederate records were destroyed, but a perusal of only five percent of Federal records reveal that over thirty court martial trials were held due to instances of rape; hanging or firing squad being the usual punishment if convicted.[16] Sometimes, offering a white woman of good standing money for sex was considered almost tantamount to rape; in the case of an Illinois private at Camp Dennison, for example, the perpetrator spent a month at the guardhouse for offering a mother a dollar and her daughter three dollars for sex. Federal troops who committed rape while invading the southern states mostly took advantage of black rather than white women, and black soldiers were usually punished more severely for the crime than their white counterparts.[17]


The term "homosexuality" was not coined until thirty years after the war ended. However, no army soldiers were disciplined for such activity, although three pairs of Union Navy sailors were punished, all in 1865.[18]

There was only one case of male prostitution reported during the war. The Richmond Dispatch reported on May 13, 1862, of "prostitutes of both sexes" openly displaying themselves in carriages and on sidewalks.[19]

Scholars have tried to ascertain if certain Civil War figures were homosexual. The most notable of these was Confederate major general Patrick Cleburne, although it is still disputed.[20]


After the war, many Southern men felt their manhood diminished in a manner some historians dubbed a "crisis of gender"; a crisis exacerbated after Confederate president Jefferson Davis was apprehended by Union soldiers wearing his wife's shawl for warmth. The false rumor quickly spread in the North that Davis was caught during his escape while dressed as a woman. Period drawings depicting Davis in full women's dress (bonnet included) were used to ridicule the Confederacy's former President.[21]

One thing that came from the spread of pornography during the war was the rise of anti-pornography forces; in particular, the Comstock laws.[22]


  1. Abramson p. 180, D'Emilio pp. 131,132
  2. Lowry p. 56
  3. Davis p. 280, Goldstein p. 342
  4. Lowry p. 104
  5. Davis pp. 231, 232
  6. Clinton p.9
  7. Clinton p.10
  8. Clinton p.16
  9. Clinton p.14
  10. Clinton p.20
  11. Clinton p.25
  12. Clinton pp.25–26d
  13. Clinton pp.27–28
  14. "Female Soldiers in the Civil War". Retrieved 2015-08-09.
  15. Goldstein p.110
  16. Lowry p.123
  17. Lowry pp.124,131,132
  18. Lowry p.109
  19. Lowry p.110
  20. Lowry pp.113,118
  21. Goldstein p.275
  22. Abramson p.180


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