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Captain Newcomb And The Frail Sisterhood

July 2024
4min read

Original documents tell the story of a Civil War steamboat captains sorrowful cruise with the most destructive cargo of all

By the summer of 1863 the Western rivers were no longer battlegrounds but supply lines for the Union Army. With the fall of Vicksburg on the Mississippi, Lincoln wrote, “the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” Captain John M. Newcomb, however, was far from unvexed; federal authorities had some very trying plans in store for him and his brand-new steamer, the Idahoe.




No. 29.

Lt. Col. Spalding Provost Marshal is hereby directed without loss of time to seize and transport to Louisville all prostitutes found in this City or Known to be here. …

The prevalence of venereal disease at this Post has elicited the notice of the General Commanding Department who has ordered a peremptory remedy.

By Command Brig. Genl J. D. Morgan Comdg.


Capt. Steamer Idahoe.


You are hereby directed to proceed to Louisville Ky with the one hundred (100) passengers put on Board your steamer today, allowing none to leave the Boat before reaching Louisville

(signed) Geo Spalding Lt. Col. and Prv Marshal

FROM THE CINCINNATI Daily Gazette July 17, 1863

… The Glide came up yesterday from Nashville, bringing a very fair cargo of freight, while the Idahoe also came up, bringing a cargo of one hundred and fifty of the frail sisterhood of Nashville, who had been sent North under military orders. There does not seem to be much desire on the part of our authorities to welcome such a large addition to the already overflowing numbers engaged in their peculiar profession, and … the poor girls are still kept on board. …


Washington, D.C. August 16, 1865.

Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secy of War.

Dear Sir:

I most respectfully beg leave to draw your attention to the following statement of facts in relation to my claim for subsisting one hundred and eleven prostitutes from Nashville, Tenn, to Cincinnati Ohio, and back to Nashville, on board of my steamer “Idahoe.”

On the 8th July 1863, while my boat was under charter by U.S. and in service at Nashville these prostitutes were put on board of her by a detachment of soldiers who were ordered to do so by Lt. Col. Spaulding, Asst. Pro. Mar. Gen. and Capt. Stubbs, Asst. Quartermaster, who were acting under orders of Gen. Morgan. I protested against their putting these women on my boat, she being a new boat, only three month built, her furniture new, and a fine passenger boat. I told them it would forever ruin her reputation as a passenger boat if they were put on her. (It has done so she is now since known as the floating warehouse.) and pointed out to them old boats that were in the service at the time, which would have answered the purpose as well as mine; but no: they said I must take them. … On the same day that they were put on board, I was ordered to start with them to Louisville. I asked Capt. Stubbs how these women were to be subsisted, he told me I would have to see Gen. Morgan about that. I saw Gen. Morgan and he told me to subsist them myself. I entreated of him to let the Gov’t subsist them that it could do so [for] much less than I could, his reply was, “You subsist them.” When I found Gen. Morgan determined that I should subsist them, I had to buy meat and vegetables at enormous high prices from storeboats along the river, and in addition at many places, to buy ice and medicines, these woman being diseased and more than one half of them sick in bed. I applied to the Commissary’s of Sub. along the route, for commissary stores, to feed these women; but at each place was refused by the officers in charge, and the Civil as well as the Military authorities would not allow my boat to land, and put guards along the shore to prevent me from doing so. When leaving Nashville I applied for a guard to be put on board, Gen. Morgan told me I did not need any but to take charge of them myself. Having no guard I could not keep men along the route from coming on board to these women, when at anchor and being angered because I strove to drive them away both themselves and these bad women destroyed and damaged my boat, and her furniture to a great extent. When I arrived at Louisville I stated my grievances to Gen. Boyle and he gave me a guard and ordered me to proceed to Cincinnati and await further orders there. I remained in the stream opposite Cincinnati Ohio, because I would not be allowed to land for thirteen days, when I was ordered to Nashville again, with my cargo of prostitutes.


I wish to say to your honor that I was compelled to subsist these women, that it cost me all that I have made a charge for, to do so, that this claim is merely a reimbursement of my money which I had to expend while complying with the orders of the Officers of the United States Government. … I had to leave my business and travel from Cincinnati to this place to see if I could collect it, it being over two years due me. I am here now one week going from one office to another, to see to get my papers, and to effect a settlement, which I have not yet done, nor a likelihood to have done, unless your honor will please to direct payment of this account so justly due me, and for so long a time. …

Very Respectfully Your Obt. Serv. John M. Newcomb


The United States

To John M. Newcomb

For damages to the State-rooms, furniture, & bedding, cabin furniture, tableware, etc. on the Steamboat “IDAHOE,” by prostitutes transported by order of Gen. Morgan from Nashville, Tenn. to Louisville, Ky, thence to Cincinnati, Ohio and back to Nashville, Tenn, from the 8th of July to the 4th of August 1863, allowed upon the papers in the claim filed herewith, and in accordance with the accompanying opinion of the Second Comptroller dated Oct. 14th 1865, amount to $1000.00

For subsistence and medicines furnished to 111 prostitutes on board the steamboat “ IDAHOE ” … at the rate of $1.50 per day for each, while being transported … amounting to $4347.00 less 180 Rations furnished by U.S. at $17.70 per 100.


Total Amount $5316.04

Treasury Dept. Third Auditor’s Office L. S. Brandebury, Clk.

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