Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstructionby Jim Downs
Pub. Date: 05/14/2012
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Bondspeople who fled from slavery during and after the Civil War did not expect that their flight toward freedom would lead to sickness, disease, suffering, and death. But the war produced the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century, and as historian Jim Downs reveals in this groundbreaking volume, it had deadly consequences for hundreds of thousands of… See more details below
Bondspeople who fled from slavery during and after the Civil War did not expect that their flight toward freedom would lead to sickness, disease, suffering, and death. But the war produced the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century, and as historian Jim Downs reveals in this groundbreaking volume, it had deadly consequences for hundreds of thousands of freed people.
In Sick from Freedom, Downs recovers the untold story of one of the bitterest ironies in American historythat the emancipation of the slaves, seen as one of the great turning points in U.S. history, had devastating consequences for innumerable freed people. Drawing on massive new research into the records of the Medical Division of the Freedmen's Bureau-a nascent national health system that cared for more than one million freed slaves-he shows how the collapse of the plantation economy released a plague of lethal diseases. With emancipation, African Americans seized the chance to move, migrating as never before. But in their journey to freedom, they also encountered yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, dysentery, malnutrition, and exposure. To address this crisis, the Medical Division hired more than 120 physicians, establishing some forty underfinanced and understaffed hospitals scattered throughout the South, largely in response to medical emergencies. Downs shows that the goal of the Medical Division was to promote a healthy workforce, an aim which often excluded a wide range of freedpeople, including women, the elderly, the physically disabled, and children. Downs concludes by tracing how the Reconstruction policy was then implemented in the American West, where it was disastrously applied to Native Americans.
The widespread medical calamity sparked by emancipation is an overlooked episode of the Civil War and its aftermath, poignantly revealed in Sick from Freedom.
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Table of Contents
1. Dying to be Free: The Unexpected Medical Crises of War and Emancipation
2. The Anatomy of Emancipation: The Creation of a Healthy Labor Force
3. Freedmen's Hospitals: The Medical Division of the Freedmen's Bureau
4. Reconstructing an Epidemic: Smallpox among Former Slaves, 1862-1868
5. The Healing Power of Labor: Dependent, Disabled, Orphaned, Elderly, and Female Freed Slaves in the Postwar South
6. Narrating Illness: Freedpeople's Health Claims at Reconstruction's End
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I read Downs's book "Sick from Freedom" not as a historian, but an American who has an interest in our past. The book evoked a roller coaster of emotions for me. The overreaching emotion was one of sorrow for the suffering, not only of the countless individuals free from birth but more importantly all those individuals just freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation. I was angered at some of the Federal programs that caused more harm than good, but I was happy to hear of all the charity afforded to the freed people by various organizations and individuals from the North. The author, through snippets of information, was able to bring to life stories of real individuals beyond the statistics. He could achieve this feat only by a painstaking review of voluminous records, which can be seen through his 55 pages of notes and 16 pages of a bibliography. I was cheered to see the valiant efforts of a young and struggling medical establishment dealing, not only with the expected consequences of war, but also with the unforeseen consequences of the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century. In the end, Mr. Downs's book is a tribute to the indefatigable human spirit of the freed people who survived all these crises and made our country so much the better for it. In the current debates about health care for the needy and safety nets for the poor, one need only read Downs's book to obtain a unique perspective, as these issues were very much in the forefront during the Civil War and its aftermath. The book's epilogue gives a glimpse of Native American suffering in the West and the Southwest. I hope that Downs's future books can paint for us a more detailed picture and appreciation of the Native American plight as this book so vividly has given us a gripping picture of African-American illness and suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Kudos to Downs for a job well done on this book.
This thorough and original excavation of the archives brings to life not only those forgotten bodies lying by the roadside, those men and women whose struggles often left them fighting for their very lives, as well as their freedom. Too many succumbed to the harsher realities of emancipation, but Downs provides us with an intensely personal and political tale of health and sickness during America's most tumultuous era of radical and racial transformations. A bravado book which changes our appreciation of the Civil War, the peace that followed, and the dynamic shifts which gave Americans their new birth of freedom in the wake of slavery's death knell.