Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

By Warner, John Harley | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction


Warner, John Harley, The Journal of Southern History


Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. By Jim Downs. (New York and other cities: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. [xvi], 264. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-19 975872-2.)

Illness, epidemics, deprivation, and death were integral ingredients in the transition from slavery to freedom, Jim Downs insists in this compelling exploration of the other casualties of the Civil War and the political etiology of their suffering. While the toll that disease took on soldiers has long been recognized, Downs argues that sickness was even more devastating and deadly for freed slaves. The collapse of the plantation economy and the dislocation that ensued dismantled healing networks and left former bondpeople without adequate food, clothes, and shelter. Between 1862 and 1870, of some 4 million emancipated slaves, roughly 500,000 fell sick or died. The heroic liberation narrative that rightly celebrates the triumph of freedom, Downs suggests, masks the struggle for health and survival that for former slaves was a defining feature of the lived experience of emancipation.

At the core of this book is the contention that the full measure of this suffering was not inevitable. Few of the architects of emancipation gave much thought to how ex-slaves would negotiate the biological assaults that social and political change would bring. Not only politicians but even abolitionists looked ahead to political, social, legal, and economic change while making little provision for how freedpeople would meet their daily needs.

The suffering of liberated slaves was ideologically problematic in ways that exacerbated the tragedy. For those who celebrated the end of slavery, the suffering of freedpeople--unlike the heroic sacrifice of Union troops--fit awkwardly into narratives about freedom and tended to be ignored. At the same time, former slaveholders and white southern journalists heralded the biological crisis as validation of the proslavery parable that if slaves were set free, they would sicken, and die, and the race would perhaps go extinct. The consequences of such ideological maneuvers could be lethal. When smallpox broke out in Washington, D.C., in 1862 and began to spread to the upper South, federal officials widely viewed the epidemic as a consequence of emancipation, and reports that the disease affected chiefly or exclusively freedpeople fueled expectations about extinction. Instead of implementing public health measures such as vaccination and quarantine long known to be effective against smallpox, the government made no concerted effort to contain the outbreak, which the massive migration of ex-slaves in search of work spread across the South and into the western territories. …

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