September 19, 2011

A Soiled Dove of the Civil War

written by Rosa Morgan

Ashamedly, I shall go by the name of Scarlet, for I was born into a life of gentility and would loathe to disclose my Christian name. If it eases your conscious to disregard my feelings, I shall duly understand, because before finding myself in such dire circumstances, I too would've judged harshly a 'soiled dove'. A sequence of misfortunes befell me: the onset of the Civil War, death of my beloved husband, and loss of home. With no kin for aid, I turned in desperation to an advertisement of easy money, whereby I'd pose in my undergarments for photographs popularly circulated amongst the soldiers.

A local madam enticed me with an even more lucrative proposition, promising me her brothel, or men's club was frequented by only the most reputable gentlemen. It was not only my stomach aching with hunger and winter's freezing nights looming that led me further down that slippery slope of damnation, but also my utter sense of grief and despair.

My very livelihood was dependent upon the selling of my flesh, and I said and did whatever was necessary to survive. I cannot fully describe the numbness I felt, nor the horror of those debauched hours.

In truth, the term 'gentlemen' could not be applied to our patrons, and my downfall, both figuratively and literally came when one of them found sport in sending me down a flight of stairs. I survived the broken bones, but the scar inflicted upon my face dramatically lowered my saleability and I became a camp follower of the Union troops.

I ended up in Nashville's notorious Smokey Row, a Sodom where hookers skyrocketed with the war from two hundred to fifteen hundred. Syphilis and gonorrhea ran rampant and some believed it was our intent to spread the diseases to the enemy troops, but I can say with painful truth, no woman knowingly takes on this plague.

-->   When I thought it couldn't get worse, Lt. Col. George Spalding, in an attempt to clean up the city, forced me, along with other 'public women', to board the steamboat, Idaho. We were sent to Louisville, but not allowed off the ship, and so sailed onto Cincinnati. Starving and ill, we eventually returned to Nashville, whereupon the well-intentioned colonel began regulating prostitution. We were medically examined weekly, licensed, and taxed, lest we find ourselves hospitalized or in the workhouse. I w I wish I could tell you I eventually found a life of redemption or a moment's peace, but my life ended in beggary and violence in the gutter, I called home. Pray do not look upon me as a faceless statistic, but rather take me to your bosom as Sister, Daughter, and Mother, and stop the exploitation of women that continues to this day.


  1. What an amazing story. Definitely she was the victim of circumstances. But it also shows that the Evil is always lurking in the sight to take advantage of the unlucky instead of helping them to get them out of their miserable binds.

  2. I believe there are many weaknesses and evils of man's character, but do not see an entity called Evil lurking outside of that.

  3. It’s often little appreciated by those who have a loving spouse and a home to share what could happen to a person who lost both and had no visible means of support. Until you are put in that situation, the importance of the comfort of that home and the unconditional support of the partner can be taken for granted. This glimpse of Scarlet’s path reminds me to remain vigilant to these basic tenants of life and love. Thank you.

  4. It's striking and shocking how often middle class and lower middle class women of the 19th century felt they had to choose prostitution as a profession. In the UK, the plight of factory laborers made this choice sometimes seem easy. This story is one of many examples of how a respectable woman saw her life fall apart, never wanting to take such a path, but finding few other options. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Thanks, Diane. I think it's vital we look at all elements of society with a compassionate sensibility.

  6. This post particularly struck me -- it is just as relevant today as it ever was, and I deeply appreciate the humanity you brought to the character.

  7. Thanks, Elyse. It's so easy for us to make hasty judgements of people we may not generally relate to.