Historical Walking Tour Shows the Seedier Side of the Siege
By Caitlin Davis
Oct 15, 2012, 13:13
photo by Caitin Davis “Alright I have to take you in” A Provost Marshal arrests a Confederate Soldier for disorderly conduct during the “Hard Liquor and Women” walking tour on Saturdaay.
Petersburg National Battlefield’s “Hard Liquor and Women” walking tour, held in Old Towne Petersburg on Saturday, let visitors in on the seedier side of the Siege of the city. The tour provided a glimpse at the vices hundreds of thousands of soldiers indulged when they found themselves in the area in 1864.
Randy Watkins, Park Ranger for Petersburg National Battlefield, said while many soldiers participated in wholesome activities, visiting friends and going to theaters and public libraries, others went to saloons and businesses of ill repute.
“They would do anything to take them away from their thoughts about this very boring siege,” Watkins said. “They would sit around for hours and do nothing.”
Watkins explained that during the Siege, as many as 56,000 Confederate soldiers passed through Richmond and Petersburg, spending just one or two days in town.
“The war was still here,” Watkins said. “The war affected the city itself.”
At the saloons and houses of ill repute, visiting soldiers were offered the chance to gamble and drink liquor, which was illegal to buy or sell during the war, and have relations with women.
Watkins said that during that time period, many wives did not care if their husbands went to houses of ill repute.
“They were perfectly happy if their husbands went out,” Watkins said. “It meant they weren’t bothering them.”
Watkins said that during the siege, street walkers cost $1 during the week, and $3 on payday, with soldiers getting paid about $13 a month. To gain access to houses run by madames, soldiers must first be introduced by current clients or present letters of recommendation. Watkins said boarding houses were an easy spot for prostitutes to work.
“They had street walkers who worked out of a boarding house,” Watkins said. “They liked to have street frontage of a window so they could lean out with almost no clothes on.”
During the walking tour, Watkins stepped into character as a newspaper reporter writing an article about the impact of soldiers on the town of Petersburg during the Siege. Reenactors were on hand to play the roles of officers, soldiers, civilians and street walkers.
One woman on the street told Watkins the soldiers were rude and drunk and that their officers could not keep them in line at all. She said they were bored.
“The evils of liquor draw them here,” she told Watkins.
As Watkins interviewed her, two women from a boarding house eyed him from across the street.
At another stop, a drunk soldier yelled at Watkins, saying this war was nothing but young boys and old men. He was tired and just wanted to forget everything, including how his wife was dead back at home. Soon, a Provost Marshal heard the commotion and came to arrest the soldier.
Around the corner, two soldiers gambled in an alley way. A woman walking by scolded one of the soldiers who had been borrowing money from others all day. Watkins explained to the group that soldiers would gamble away anything.
“They were all the time playing cards and all the time losing money,” Watkins said.
At another stop, participants in the tour got a pass of their own for the day. The Provost Marshal reminded them to keep it with them at all times, or he would come looking for them. He even asked those in the group if they had seen any illegal activities, such as gambling. Suddenly, the group became silent.
Down the street, the group ran into two women from a boarding house. The woman in charge made sure to pass out her card to the men in the group and told them it would be worth their while to visit.
photo by Caitlin Davis These two ladies were from a boarding house, a stop during the walking tour. Boarding houses were popular during the days of the war, often getting many visits from soldiers.
“I have ladies that stay with me and get room and board,” she said. “And very pretty ladies I might add.”
Watkins said that even though the scenes were scripted based on historical evidence.
“Here in Petersburg, the war put a lot of strain on the soldiers,” Watkins said.
Roberta and Walt Purcell, of Petersburg, enjoyed the tour. Both said they learned a lot and that Watkins was a great guide.
“He’s always enjoyable,” Walt said.
Tour participant Cpt. Simon Huntley, Ft. Lee, 149 BSB, described himself as a huge history buff and said he is still amazed that history doesn’t often change.
“Soldiers still have the same fears and frustrations,” Huntley said. “They are worried about what is going on back at home. You hear these stories and realize not much has changed.”