Hundreds of thousands of slaves freed during the American civil war died from disease and hunger after being liberated, according to a new book.
The analysis, by historian Jim Downs of Connecticut College, casts a shadow over one of the most celebrated narratives of American history, which sees the freeing of the slaves as a triumphant righting of the wrongs of a southern plantation system that kept millions of black Americans in chains.
But, as Downs shows in his book, Sick From Freedom, the reality of emancipation during the chaos of war and its bloody aftermath often fell brutally short of that positive image. Instead, freed slaves were often neglected by union soldiers or faced rampant disease, including horrific outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. Many of them simply starved to death.
After combing through obscure records, newspapers and journals Downs believes that about a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness between 1862 and 1870. He writes in the book that it can be considered “the largest biological crisis of the 19th century” and yet it is one that has been little investigated by contemporary historians.
Downs believes much of that is because at the time of the civil war, which raged between 1861 and 1865 and pitted the unionist north against the confederate south, many people did not want to investigate the tragedy befalling the freed slaves. Many northerners were little more sympathetic than their southern opponents when it came to the health of the freed slaves and anti-slavery abolitionists feared the disaster would prove their critics right.
“In the 19th century people did not want to talk about it. Some did not care and abolitionists, when they saw so many freed people dying, feared that it proved true what some people said: that slaves were not able to exist on their own,” Downs told the Observer.
Downs’s book is full of terrible vignettes about the individual experiences of slave families who embraced their freedom from the brutal plantations on which they had been born or sold to. Many ended up in encampments called “contraband camps” that were often near union army bases. However, conditions were unsanitary and food supplies limited. Shockingly, some contraband camps were actually former slave pens, meaning newly freed people ended up being kept virtual prisoners back in the same cells that had previously held them. In many such camps disease and hunger led to countless deaths. Often the only way to leave the camp was to agree to go back to work on the very same plantations from which the slaves had recently escaped.
Treatment by union soldiers could also be brutal. Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller’s young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead. For Downs such tales are heartbreaking. “So many of these people are dying of starvation and that is such a slow death,” he said.
but please, tell me again about all those Nice White People during slavery and the Civil War that were so concerned about black people. tell me again how northern crackers have ALWAYS BEEN MUCH LESS RACISTS thank southern peckerwoods. please.
Hmm. I don’t know about this one. I’d have to read the book and see the author’s argument and evidence.
I think I’ve only studied this topic as it concerns Black women (in Atlanta) and Black people in my hometown (Chattanooga, TN). From what I’ve studied, yes, many Blacks died after freedom came, but they were already dying before freedom came. Many Whites also died depending on which town/city you’re studying. It was the 1800s. Outbreaks of diseases happened all the time and wiped people out. It was, of course, more damaging to the Black community, who was usually living in cramp and squalor conditions, but I mean, this isn’t some hidden history.
By the thousands, slaves left their plantations before the Civil War was even over to go to contraband camps. They knew the risks, yet they flocked to the Union army and once the law of “contraband” had been enacted, the Union army gladly accepted them. Former slaves built, cooked, fought, and help ensure the victory of the Union army.
They didn’t starve to death because “freedom came”. They starved to death because freedom didn’t come fast enough. And, to me, that’s not really the story anyway. The story is people risked their lives to flee enslavement, no matter the cost.
By any means necessary. I wish someone felt the need to tell that story.
The word nigger carries with it much of the hatred and repulsion directed toward Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, and mocked African Americans. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal justification for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it reinforced the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless parasite. No other American ethnophaulism carried so much purposeful venom, as the following representative list suggests:
- Nigger, v. To wear out, spoil or destroy.
- Niggerish, adj. Acting in an indolent and irresponsible manner.
- Niggerlipping, v. Wetting the end of a cigarette while smoking it.
- Niggerlover, n. Derogatory term aimed at whites lacking in the necessary loathing of blacks.
- Nigger luck, n. Exceptionally good luck, emphasis on undeserved.
- Nigger-flicker, n. A small knife or razor with one side heavily taped to preserve the user’s fingers.
- Nigger heaven, n. a designated place, usually the balcony, where blacks were forced to sit, for example, in an integrated movie theater or church.
- Nigger knocker, n. axe handle or weapon made from an axe handle.
- Nigger rich, adj, Deeply in debt but ostentatious.
- Nigger shooter, n. A slingshot.
- Nigger steak, n. a slice of liver or a cheap piece of meat.
- Nigger stick, n. police officer’s baton.
- Nigger tip, n. leaving a small tip or no tip in a restaurant.
- Nigger in the woodpile, n. a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way.
- Nigger work, n. Demeaning, menial tasks.
Nigger has been used to describe a dark shade of color (nigger-brown, nigger-black), the status of whites who interacted with blacks (nigger-breaker, -dealer, -driver, -killer, -stealer, -worshipper, and -looking), and anything belonging to or associated with African Americans (nigger-baby, -boy, -girl, -mouth, -feet, -preacher, -job, -love, -culture, -college, -music, and so forth). Nigger is the ultimate American insult; it is used to offend other ethnic groups, as when Jews are called white-niggers; Arabs, sandniggers; or Japanese, yellow-niggers.