The emancipation of the Southern slaves meant freedom, but at what cost. No one anticipated the sickness, disease, suffering, and death that they encountered on their flight to freedom. Author Jim Downs, in this extensively researched volume, details how emancipation lead to a biological crisis that had deadly results for hundreds of thousands of freed slaves.
Sick From Freedom chronicles one of the bitterest ironies in our country’s history. Once freed, the African Americans had an opportunity to move and migrate as never before. Unfortunately, they also encountered yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, dysentery, malnutrition, exposure, and death. Using new research into the records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Downs reveals how the breakdown of the plantation system resulted in a plethora of lethal diseases. President Johnson was not in favor of the Freedmen’s Bureau and it’s medical division fearing that the freedmen would become dependent on the federal government for this survival. As a result, he and Congress continually cut the budget of the Bureau and its divisions. Even with the Bureau’s physicians reporting increases in disease, malnutrition, exposure, and deaths, the federal government moved at a snail’s pace, when it moved at all. The result was the deaths of thousands upon thousands of freed men, women, and children before they could taste the long awaited Land of Jubilee.
Freedom meant that the African American man, woman, and child now had to provide for themselves what had been provided to and for them by the plantation owners, i.e. food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.
When the first smallpox epidemic appeared among the emancipated slaves in 1862, many in both the North and the South viewed the high mortality rates among the former slaves as a sign of the extinction of the black race. With this view in mind, the federal government was not anxious to spend the money to provide hospitals, doctors, food, medicine, clothing, or shelter to a “dying race.”
The author concludes this volume by presenting how the Reconstruction policy of the federal government was implemented in the American West with the same disastrous results among Native Americans.
To quote the book’s dust jacket, “The widespread medical calamity sparked by emancipation is an overlooked episode of the Civil War and its aftermath...” While at times the reading can be ponderous, Jim Downs, Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College and author of two previous books, provides a much needed new prospective on a little known aspect of the Civil War and its aftermath.
Sick from Freedom, African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction is well recommended for those wishing to learn of the plight of the emancipated slaves both during and after the war.