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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jim Downs on the “darker side of emancipation,” the hundreds of thousands of freedmen who died from sickness and disease

Guest blog post by Jim Downs, associate professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

All he needed was a pair of shoes. But shoes, especially those needed by a formerly enslaved child, seemed to be the last thing on the Union Army’s mind. The Union Army was not the Red Cross: it was a military engaged in a long and bloody war.

Even when the U.S. Army felt generous and donated “cast-off” garments and worn shoes to the freed slaves who fled to their camps for protection during the Civil War, the clothes would be in miserable condition. Shoes would be stained with blood or dirtied with animal feces and mud, most were worn down to the soles, and all were too big to fit a small child’s feet.

For former slaves who were constantly on the move, boots mattered. Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, Union officials ordered emancipated slaves to be transported from one location to the next based on the military’s need for laborers or depending on the exigencies of military strategy. Before the Civil War, former slaves may have been accustomed to being barefoot. But during a war in which former enslaved people were forced to take shelter in refugee camps and negotiated their newly found freedom across the desecrated, muddy, frozen land, shoes were indispensable protection against the cold, rain, and mud.

In the case of this boy, shoes may have prevented him from ending up as we find him: in front of Union officials who realized after one look at his frozen feet that he would require amputation. According to the Union official’s report, his father had enlisted in the Union Army, but his whereabouts were unknown; the boy’s mother had recently died and, based on the Union official’s description, the boy and his siblings were “nearly starved.”

The official story of the child ends there. The surviving archival evidence does not include his name, so there is no way to even track him down through the voluminous census of the next decade, or even to know if the amputation was successful. We do know this: Civil War medicine could not protect the child from the pain that he would likely feel when the doctors sawed through the bone to cut off his feet. Civil War medicine could not even protect him from a possible infection; many amputees suffered from gangrene, in this era before microbiology and germ theory.

Without a parent to hold his hand, did the boy scream in utter terror as the white Union military officials reached for the saw? Did he pass out when the surgeon snapped off his foot and threw it in a pile of other body parts? Did he cry in agony as the surgeon took horsehair or cotton and sewed the remaining flesh flaps over what muscle and bone was left?

We will never know. But we need to keep asking these difficult questions, because the Civil War risks being viewed only as a victory that triumphantly overthrew the institution of slavery, disregarding the biological aftershocks of the war—namely, that freedpeople lived without adequate clothing, shelter, and food. Without basic necessities to survive, freedpeople were vulnerable to illnesses like smallpox and yellow fever, which ravaged poor populations in the post-war years. And without a medical infrastructure to support them when they became sick, their condition often worsened. Between 1862 and 1870, hundreds of thousands of former slaves got sick and died.

The individual stories of most of these freedpeople have been lost. Freedpeople feared that if they drew attention to the suffering and sickness that their families endured, they would substantiate the pro-slavery narrative that they were better off under slavery. Federal and military officials were often so exasperated burying the unexpected dead bodies of soldiers that they did not create a protocol to document the death and suffering of freed slaves.

Thus, the story of this boy comes only in a passing reference in a military report, but his experience can serve as an outline to understand the many thousands of other formerly enslaved children who were separated from their families during the war, and who lost their families to disease and death. While the historical record remains silent on his future, we do know that the war turned the young boy into an orphan. When the war eventually ended, thousands of freed children became orphans and risked being returned to a version of chattel slavery, as former planters attempted to trap black orphans under apprenticeship laws, which legally bounded orphans to postbellum plantations.

In response to this practice, Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, appealed to British reformers to establish an orphanage for freed slaves. She wrote, “As the spirit of Slavery is not exorcised yet, the child, in many instances, is cruelly treated. It is our earnest desire to do something for this class of children; to give them a shelter surrounded by some home influences, and instruction that shall fit them for usefulness, and, when apprenticed, the right of an over-sight.”

Jacob’s appeal joined a growing chorus of Northern abolitionists who fled south and reported on the massive mortality and suffering among the freedpeople. Northern abolitionists ultimately joined forces with a handful of sympathetic Congressmen and pressured the federal government to create the first system of national health care. Known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, this wartime agency established over 40 hospitals, employed over 120 physicians, and treated over a million freedpeople.

Most of the stories of these freedpeople have been lost due to the inefficiencies of a federal bureaucracy that deemed it unnecessary to record freedpeople’s experience, or even to ask their names. But the few surviving scraps of evidence, left by Union officials and committed abolitionists, reveal the unexpected darker side of emancipation.

Also of interest:
Related LOA volumes: Slave Narratives (includes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs)

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