Monday, April 28, 2008

Medical Department #15 - Medical care of African American Soldiers in the Civil War

In a post a couple of months ago, I included a new book - Dr. Margaret Humphreys' Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (John Hopkins University Press, 2008) - in a list of books I had received to review.

Since then, I've had the pleasure of reading the book and interviewing Dr. Humphreys. The book review and my interview appeared in the most recent issue of The Civil War News; it's my pleasure to post it on the blog for your enjoyment.


by James M. Schmidt

The Civil War News

“Medical Department” – May 2008

“They however have not the intelligence of the white troops…His moral and intellectual culture is deficient and the lack of this culture renders him unequal to the white soldier in power to resist disease.” – Joseph Smith

Dr. Joseph R Smith, medical director of Union troops in Arkansas late in the Civil War, made these remarks in reference to the health of African-American soldiers. If it only represented personal prejudice - and bad science - on Smith’s part, it might have made little difference to the average black soldier in the war. Unfortunately, Smith’s remarks were endemic to the Union officer corps – both line officers and medical personnel – and the mindset had significant and unfortunate consequences for the men of color in their care.

In her recent book, Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (John Hopkins University Press, 2008), Dr. Margaret Humphreys details the reasons why the black soldier was more likely to die from disease than his white comrades-in-arms. Relying on period medical files, Sanitary Commission reports, and correspondence of black soldiers, she describes the prejudices, faulty equipage, hard labor, and inattentive care that resulted in a longer war, and more important – in her words – “a wastage of human potential.”

Dr. Humphreys wears many professional hats at Duke University: Josiah Charles Trent Professor in the History of Medicine, Professor of History, Associate Professor of Medicine, and Editor, Journal of the History of Medicine. Readers of this column were introduced to Dr. Humphreys in my September 2006 column regarding her interesting research on typhus in the Civil War.

Intensely Human is Dr. Humphreys’ third book and is actually an off-shoot of research for a larger project - a history of medicine in the Civil War – that is still in progress. While some excellent and recent works on medical care in the war already exist, she intends to build on them by integrating the history of Civil War medicine with the large body of literature on the social history of nineteenth century medicine. “My chapters on the understanding of infectious disease, for example, connect backward to earlier nineteenth century debates on contagion and miasm,” she told me, “and forward to bacteriology and the revolution in public health practice generated by it.”

It was in doing research for the bigger project that she came across the papers of Dr. Ira Russell, a wartime physician for whom the study of the health of black soldiers became a passion. Russell saw the Union’s “great experiment” of regiments composed of free blacks and ex-slaves as a ready-made laboratory to research the “black body” and to explain – and protest against – the needless higher mortality and disease rates among African-American soldiers in the Civil War.

In the first few chapters, Dr. Humphreys examines prejudices against blacks, especially in terms of what now are obviously racist (and scientifically incorrect) notions about biological differences – and the potential for “full” humanity (and by extension, full citizenship) - among the races. Curiosity among physicians about the general “constitutional differences” and differences in response to therapies among whites, blacks, and mulattoes, might have been useful intellectual exercises, but the conclusions often drifted towards an unsettling paradigm of the black man as an “animal” or “child.” Dr. Humphreys notes that even the Constitution saw blacks as only “three-fifths human” in calculating representation in Congress.

Abolitionists thought blacks could be “elevated,” but that it would require white help to do so. Some white officers of black regiments also saw the transition from slave to soldier as a pathway to full manhood and citizenship for the men in their charge. Dr. Humphreys notes that one white officer – impressed by his regiment’s performance in battle at Petersburg - proclaimed “The problem is solved. The negro is a man, a soldier, a hero.” Despite such declarations, the African-American infantry regiments were hardly led – or cared for – by a corps of “Wilberforces.” Dr. Humphreys declares without reservation that the black soldiers “received decidedly second-class medical care.”

In the main, Dr. Humphreys expertly describes and explains how the substandard clothing, housing, diet, and care resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of black soldiers. She gives particular attention to St. Louis (where a particularly harsh winter in 1863-64 resulted in hundreds of deaths from pneumonia, measles, smallpox, and meningitis), Louisiana, and especially Texas, where the lack of fresh water and insufficient rations led to a scurvy epidemic, made worse by the inexcusable incompetence and cruelty of senior officers.

Despite the poor care, some heroes - black and white - emerged for Dr. Humphreys in her research. “I suppose Ira Russell is my main ‘hero,’” she told me. “He was a physician from Natick, Massachusetts, who probably had minimal contact with blacks before the war.” While Russell may have gone into the war with Abolitionist sentiments (he was friends with the Bay State’s Senator Henry Wilson, a dedicated defender of blacks), she found no firm evidence of the fact. Still, Russell saw gross injustice toward black troops at Benton Barracks in St. Louis and he fought to remedy it. “I also like the inventiveness of his mind,” Dr. Humphreys told me, pointing especially to Russell’s willingness to question the conventional wisdom about the inherent frailty of blacks and mullatoes.

“I admire Alexander Augusta as well,” Dr. Humphreys told me, “but don't feel as close to him because I don't have any letters or other writings of his to read.” (Readers will remember Augusta from my November 2006 column about African-American surgeons in the Civil War; born free in Norfolk, Virginia in 1825, Augusta was turned away by American medical schools, but graduated from Trinity Medical College in Toronto in 1856. In 1863, Augusta confronted prejudice in seeking a commission during the war). “He was a self-conscious reformer and fought for his rights, whether as a doctor in the army or as a Union officer deserving of civil respect,” she told me.

As for villains, Dr. Humphreys singles out the white doctors in Texas in the summer of 1865, who spent the hospital fund on their own comfort, made money on the side, and grossly neglected their black patients who were dying of scurvy. “There can be no excuse that they lacked knowledge or means,” she told me, adding that they were “callous, nasty men.”

While Intensely Human fills a void in the literature on the health of black soldiers in the war, Dr. Humphreys acknowledges that there is room for additional scholarship. “I'd like to know more about what happened to them after the war,” she said. She points to Donald Shaffer's book, After the Glory (University Press of Kansas, 2004), and the statistical work on Union soldiers being done by the group based at the University of Chicago, but admits that she wants more local studies to draw on. “I know nothing about blacks in the Union navy, and their medical care. I'd like to hear more about that,” she added.

Dr. Humphreys notes that as early as the 1820s, black reformers like David Walker, railed against racism, exclaiming “I ask you, O my Brethren! Are we MEN?!” She takes the title of her book from the curt – but heartfelt - answer of an impatient white officer besieged with questions as to how he saw the black soldiers in his charge: “Intensely human.”

For some whites, at least, their experience with African Americans in the ranks during the Civil War helped affirm what should have been obvious: their fellow comrades-in-arms were men, indeed.

No comments: