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Lionel S. Taylor
4.0 out of 5 starsA Little Know Part of the Reconstruction Narrative is Reveled.
Reviewed in the United States on February 6, 2017
This book challenges the traditional held view of Reconstruction and revels a aspect of it that is not talked about. usually what we learn in in school is what Reconstruction is and that the Freedman's Bureau, the first federal relief agency of its type provided clothing, food and education to the freedmen as they tried to get back on their feet. The health conditions of the Freedmen and how that was addressed is never talked about and that is the main topic of this book. Despite the revolutionary change in the status of a major part of the American populations that author argues that this can also be seen as a major public health event in which the systems and structures that were once used to maintain the health and well being of the slaves collapsed with the rest of the slave system. The author goes on to show that the Freedman's Bureau was in no way prepared to address this situation. What results is a series of piece meal solutions that are never fully implemented by an agency. The author provides ample, one could even say exhaustive evidence, showing this fact and then goes on to show how it played out on the ground. The evidence used in the early part of the book may come off as being a little repetitive but the author is presenting evidence for her case most of which is drawn from the primary sources themselves. This book is great reference source for someone doing research on Reconstruction or the issue of slave health. This was a full blown health crisis that the federal government was not prepared to deal with and that would occur again with the native american just a decade later and would be mishandled in similar fashion as the author points out in the end of the book. While this is not the most engaging read it is full of information and sheds light on a little know part of American history.
3.0 out of 5 starsNew insights into the health issues of blacks related to the Civil War
Reviewed in the United States on May 18, 2018
excellent overview of the issues impacting on African American health issues, during and after the Civil War. It really heightens the awareness for this neglected aspect that resulted. Who knew the extent of these issues among freed slaves? More illustrations, charts or graphs, and, especially, photos would have helped break up the narrative and could allow the reader to identify more closely with the subject matter. From a humanitarian standpoint together with the benefit of nearly 150 years of hindsight and (some) progress in societal racial/tribal attitudes, his thesis is subtly critical of the poor response of the Union Army and federal government in addressing the issues of health and disease prevention. In addition, although the health issues and plight of soldiers (on both sides) as well as white civilians in the south is not the focus, more discussion could help put this contribution in a better historical context. So, though I am sympathetic to his argument, this strikes me as an unfair criticism, especially since neither was the mandate of the union army-which was focused on attempting to win the war. Neither were they funded to provide such assistance. The options in this regard for the Union Army and government were extremely limited, even more so in the restricted sociological environment, so to hold them accountable by today's standards is disingenuous. But, ultimately that may be one of the author''s points: our preconceived ideas and ignorance about other human beings impact our interactions and decisions, even when it comes to humanitarian and health issues. This is a phenomenon that continues today in our American societal judgements - not only for black Americans - but also in regard to economic support and charitable attitudes towards other persons of color, immigrants, and refugees, including the recent example of our pitiful US response to the plight of Puerto Ricans after their hurricane. devastation.
Jim Downs seems to have set out to spoil the conception most of us have of The Civil War and Reconstruction. We thought it was a good time for African-Americans, as they were liberated from slavery and acquired the rights of citizenship(albeit, in most of the South, temporarily). Downs shows us that for the ex-slaves emancipation also meant destitution, malnutrition, disease, and death. In the introduction Downs says that tens of thousands of excess deaths can be attributed to the effects of emancipation. In Op-Ed pieces, he raises the number to hundreds of thousands. Escaping from slavery involved the loss of a means of livelihood, the loss of the medical care masters had provided, often the loss of shelter. The Union government was unprepared to deal with this crisis, and, as Downs tells it, wasn't much inclined to do so. During the war the army herded many freed slaves into filthy "contraband" camps that were sometimes literal death camps on a par with Andersonville and Elmira. After the war the freedpersons faced enormous challenges in trying to adjust to the new free labor economy. Partly because of race prejudice, partly because of the 19th century's aversion to the poor being maintained at government expense, the federal authorities made little effort to provide relief. The Freedmen's Bureau did make a serious effort to provide education, but this was a long term solution, and a short term one was needed. Again and again, Downs records instances of malign neglect of freedperson's needs on the part of the government. Although he regards the Freedmen's Bureau's Medical Division as a historic innovation--the federal government's first incursion into health care--he still gives the Division poor marks for how it did its job. About the only Yankees who come off well in this book are the non-governmental philanthropic associations, which did their best, but didn't have the resources needed to handle the crisis. Downs says that his book is intended as a corrective to the "triumphant" narrative of emancipation. Such a corrective may be needed, but at times he writes as though emancipation was an almost entirely negative experience, although perhaps that isn't the intended message. I think he is overly critical of the Union for its policy of putting freed slaves to work on plantations. It was essential to procure employment for the freedpersons, and most of them had no skills but farming. There were abuses, but I think the policy goal was sound. The thing I most want to address is Downs contention that "hundreds of thousands" of African-Americans died as a result of emancipation. If true, it casts serious doubt on the morality of emancipation and the war. But I think there are grounds for challenging it. The mortality in the contraband camps was dire, ranging from a low of 5-6 percent to a high of 25 percent. But since less than a quarter of a million passed through the camps, this toll could not mean hundreds of thousands of deaths.1 As for the ex-slaves who remained outside of the camps,--the vast majority-- it is impossible to say if their mortality was greater than it would have been without emancipation. Downs actually acknowledges this on pg. 54. But almost everywhere else, he attributes nearly all deaths to the war and emancipation. The Bureau's Medical Division may have been inefficient, but nothing like it had existed before. It may have saved some lives that would have been lost if slavery had continued. Despite the dollar value of their slaves, many masters provided them medical care that was sub par even by mid-19th century standards. Conditions in some slave hospitals were worse than anything Downs reports for the Bureau's hospitals.2 Also on pg. 54, Downs cites an account of ex-slaves reduced to sleeping on a bare floor. They might not have had it better before; on the plantation where Frederick Douglass was born, the slaves habitually slept on the earth floor. Downs reckons as part of the cost of the war the smallpox epidemic of 1862-67, whose 50,000 dead were overwhelmingly African-American. He attributes much of the mortality to the federal government's failure to take serious preventive measures, because it did not regard the epidemic as a threat to white people. But would an independent Confederate government have behaved any differently? It probably would have left the health situation to individual masters to deal with, and they could not have coped. It may be that in the long run the war saved more African-American lives than it cost, or even more than than it cost among white and black civilians together. There was a substantial reduction in African-American mortality in 1900-1940. It is doubtful if the improvement would have been as marked if those people had remained in slavery, or had only recently been freed. Despite these objections, I would strongly recommend this book.
1. "Camp Life of Contrabands and Freedmen", Joel W. Shinault, digitalcommons.auctr.edu James Oakes, Freedom National, pg. 421
2. Todd L. Savitt, Medicine and Slavery, Diseases and Healthcare of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia, pg. 219-226, Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, pg. 317-318