Jim Downs. Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 280 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-975872-2.
Reviewed by Rebecca Zimmer (University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-War (May, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The Costs of Freedom: Repercussions of Emancipation in the United States
In Sick from Freedom, Jim Downs reconsiders the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Stating that the liberation narratives of heroic freedpeople were a result of late nineteenth-century white authors, who wished to demonstrate the benefits of emancipation, Downs indicates that for many African American ex-slaves, the road to freedom was fraught with hazard. He further asserts that for many, these dangers were not those which could be overcome by resolute behavior. Downs argues “that tens of thousands of freed slaves became sick and died due to the unexpected problems caused by the exigencies of war and the massive dislocation triggered by emancipation” (p. 7). He further posits that the health and well-being of freedmen caused the federal government to extend itself in unprecedented ways. Downs is able to demonstrate both the scope of the ways in which disease and death affected newly freed slaves and the expansion of federal power.
Downs examined the accounts of many African Americans who did not experience a liberation narrative with emancipation, but who, instead, were faced with disease and death. The individuals Downs specifically mentions, some of whose names have been lost to time, if they were ever known to those in power, bring to the reader a sense of immediacy, and humanize the problems with which Downs wrestles. Demonstrating that at least some of these people were ill when they arrived at Union camps, Downs shows that Federal soldiers often ignored the illnesses of those who were, to their minds, unable to work. This subset, which included women and children, were also often not allotted rations, clothing, or other necessities. According to Downs, neglecting to give people adequate food and shelter added to the illnesses that ran rampant in the camps.
Downs makes evident that the Freedman’s Bureau was an unprecedented expansion of governmental power. He indicates that by trying to provide newly freed African Americans with access to medical care and by intervening directly in their lives, Bureau agents acted in a way that extended the reach of the government significantly. He demonstrates this using the smallpox outbreak of 1862-68, and the measures taken by the government to inoculate African Americans against the disease. According to Downs, Bureau agents went into schools as well as homes to provide inoculations, but he states that there were cases in which people attempted to hide themselves or family members from agents.
People who hid from the inoculation could not, in many cases, keep themselves safe from the epidemic. Disease--particularly smallpox, the evidence of which cannot be hidden by the sufferer--however, had further-reaching effects than the immediate, according to Downs’ analysis. He indicates that the physical evidence of disease often cemented ideas of racial inferiority in the minds of whites.
In order to make his argument, Downs consulted numerous sources. Included in these sources were a large number of secondary sources. More importantly, however, Downs consulted an impressive number of primary sources, such as the records of the Freedman’s Bureau, letters and diaries from a number of individuals, and newspaper accounts, among other records. Downs uses these sources to approach the topic thematically.
Sick from Freedom adds to the historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction in an innovative way. Downs delves into a part of the emancipation experience of African Americans not previously explored in depth. The major narrative in the historiography was the liberation narrative, which glossed over the problems of disease and epidemics among newly freed people; however, by demonstrating the struggles which many African Americans faced, Downs expands this narrative. Additionally, Sick from Freedom shows that emancipation experiences in the United States were similar to those in other parts of the world.
Downs has written a book that will be useful to many for years to come. Students of history will find that Sick from Freedom presents an alternate view of emancipation. Additionally, they will find in Downs’s monograph the roots of white attitudes toward African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Finally, the casual reader will find that the book is easily understood.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Rebecca Zimmer. Review of Downs, Jim, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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