In the Service of the United States: Comparative Mortality among African-American and White Troops in the Union Army

Article excerpt

The glory of the Civil War lies firmly in the valor of the soldiers on both sides who fought and died for liberty as they saw it. Partially in response to their record, the literature on the War is extraordinarily voluminous. One group whose story has yet to be fully told is the African-Americans who fought for the Union. Men who served in the "United States Colored Corps" regiments did not experience the same conditions as other troops. Among a galaxy of differences, they suffered from disease at a considerably higher rate than white troops who served in the Union Army. There were, however, exceptions in reference to particular disorders and regions. The causes of the disparities between these two groups can be explained by their different environmental experiences, and included the locations where they served, the type of duty to which they were assigned, their medical experiences from the antebellum era, and the type of clinical treatment they received from the Union medical staff.(1)

This disparity has only been discussed at length in two works: Bell Irvin Wiley's The Life Of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier Of The Union, and Ira Berlin's Freedom: A Documentary History Of Emancipation 1861-1867; Series II: The Black Military Experience. Wiley's work is interesting, but limited; African-Americans appear only to provide context for the descriptions of white soldiers. Berlin's work, while much more effective, makes little attempt at specificity in regard to disease and region. All the different ingredients that caused the disparity between whites and blacks have yet to be addressed in a comprehensive manner. Consequently a full treatment of the most important aspects of this topic from a comparative viewpoint will be attempted as the subject of this study.(2)

In this most deadly of American wars Union fatalities from all causes exceeded 300,000 men. Of these, the distribution for white troops was 90,638 killed in battle or as a result of wounds, and 171,806 from disease. For black troops 3,331 were killed in battle or as a result of wounds, and 29,963 from disease respectively. In simple terms, white troops were twice as likely to die for reasons of ill-health as in battle, while black troops were almost ten times as likely to do so.(3)

The large amount of illness reported suggests that during the first two years of the war the average Union soldier (almost all of whom were white until late 1863) must have been ill much of the year. Indeed Union troops appear to have served in conditions of perpetual epidemic. Since the sick rate for black troops did not decrease (until March 1866), to less than that for white troops, it seems clear that the normal state of health within the "United States Colored Corps" was marginal at best.(4)

For Union troops as a whole the medical records were organized into Atlantic, Central, and Pacific regions, and segregated by race. The Atlantic zone extended from the East coast including Florida to the crest of the Appalachian mountain range. The Central zone started at the Appalachians and included all the territory up to the crest of the Rocky mountains. The Pacific zone included everything from the Rockies to the West coast, where the black presence was so small that no records were tabulated for them in that area. Of the three, by far the greatest mortality for all causes other than battle occurred in the Central region.(5)

The Mississippi river valley experienced an extraordinary number of epidemics both in the antebellum period and after which caused it to be the area of the nation with the greatest risk of ill-health from disease. For example, yellow fever alone, beginning with its first large scale outbreak in New Orleans in 1796, reappeared consistently until well into the twentieth century. In 1823, Natchez, which was located well up the river from the Crescent City suffered a very severe epidemic. As a result of this and similar incidents, Natchez would later establish one of the first quarantines on the river. …