Tuesday, January 08, 2008

CWL--Sex in the (Wartime) City

Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War: A Compendium of 1,036 True Stories, Thomas P. Lowry, Xlibris Press, 2006, Chapter 1, Prostitution in Virginia, pp. 15-25.

The following letter is imaginary but accurate.

Dear Wife,
Greetings from Alexandria, Virginia!
I won’t be sending you my pay for a couple of months.
I got drunk. Then the bartender took me to a house of ill fame and I had sex with a prostitute, who talked me into leaving the army (I missed you so much) and said she would help me do it. She sold me for $25 civilian clothes provided by the bartender. When I put them on the bartender came into the bedroom with the provost guard. I was arrested for desertion. The arresting officers got a reward of $30 that they split 50-50 with the bartender who split his share with the whore. I am losing $8 of my $13 a month pay for three months. Also, I am in Old Slave Pen jail and will be moved to the Prince Street Prison for three months and at hard labor.
Your husband,
The Private.

Thomas P. Lowry has discovered military court records that chronicle that sad story, with a several variations, many times. The amount paid for the clothes changes; it ranges from $25 to $80. On occasion, the arresting officers take a bribe from the deserter, but still arrest the offender. Several times, transportation out of Alexandria is to be provided for fees ranging for around $20.

In addition, Lowry presents some fairly frank information of the methods of whores acquiring customers in Alexandria. There were a pair of Southern ladies who sold heirlooms from their home; but a whiskey still was found in their basement by the provost guard. From the Potomac River docks, women would signal passing ship. The ship would come to the dock, drop the gangplank and a woman would get on board. The ship would pull away from the dock, idle in the current for a while and then return to the dock and discharge the woman. This event occurred so regularly that the woman that small crowds would come to a particular dock to cheer the women on and off the ship. When a ferry captain asked a woman who was going aboard a U.S. provost guard ship if she was going to fire a salute she replied she was going aboard to handle a gun.

The evidence from these trial shows that the U.S. authorities tolerated prostitution. There is evidence that only one whorehouse was shut down by the provost guard in Alexandria in the course of four years. Nearly all the cases Lowry has found are records of violence, desertion or noisy behavior. When men paid for sex and not sold civilian clothes, then prostitution went unnoticed by the provost. ‘Soiled doves’, ‘nymphs du pave ‘(girls of the pavement),’ frail but fair women’, ‘Cyprians’ who worked in ‘houses of ill fame, ‘houses of ill repute’, or ‘bawdy houses’ were terms used for whores and their domiciles in Victorian times and found in courts martial records. Much less frequently used, Lowry finds, are the terms whore’, ‘whorehouse’, and ‘bordello’. The term ‘parlor houses’ was a term reserved for the rich and well-to-do when the visited a whorehouse.

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