Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Humphreys, Margaret|
Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American
Civil War. By Margaret Humphreys (Baltimore: John Hopkins University
Press, 2008. viv plus 197 pp. $ 40.00).
When the Civil War ended 90,000 white Union soldiers and 3,000 African American Union soldiers lay dead of battle wounds. "2.7 white soldiers died of disease for every single battle casualty" while an astonishing ten black soldiers died of disease for every single battle casualty (11). Margaret Humphreys' Intensely Human: the Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War seeks to discover why African Americans possessed a higher morality rate from disease. Her research in the United States Sanitation Commission archives generally, and detailed investigation of the Ira Russell papers specifically, attributes the brutally high, and curiously disproportionate, mortality rates to deliberate decisions made by Union leaders and medical personnel.
African American soldiers clearly "entered the war disadvantaged by a life-time of malnutrition" which the army compounded with dreadful living conditions (xii). Black soldiers lived in tattered tents contenting with wretched sanitation, poor equipment, rotten bug-invested food, and ultimately interior medical care in second rate hospitals. Held hostage by nineteenth century racial ideas, Union doctors functioned within a framework that declared African Americans intellectually and physically inferior to and different from whites. Accordingly, these perpetual children possessed smaller brains and a natural immunity to diseases like malaria and yellow fever. As such, doctors were indifferent to black bodies, as they required little medical care. Since white doctors were trained to nurse white bodies, they consistently privileged white patients over black. Union officials relegated the handful of black physicians, men like Alexander Augusta and Alexander Ruffin Abbott, who is curiously absent from this work, to "positions where they would not offend white surgeons" (64). Consequently, the Union leadership sharply curtailed the amount of care that black doctors were able to give to black soldiers and the ways in which they could override the orders and actions of white doctors. Black physicians understood the treatment of black bodies while white physicians clung to accepted antebellum racialized views of African Americans as others. As a result some white doctors and surgeons, argues Humphreys, "went beyond incompetence into sadism and cruelty" by having their patients whipped, chained, and berated (71). Patients were forced to convalesce in stifling hospitals with poor ventilation and without pain medication, as doctors tended to drink the designated whiskey or use the medicine on whites.
This same racialized understanding of black bodies, which lead to incompetent medical care, was also responsible for black soldiers needing such care. In 1864, Benton Barracks proved to be "a panorama of horror and disease" (88). Meningitis, smallpox, and measles ran rampant compounded by overcrowded living conditions with poor ventilation and pre-existing traumas caused, in part, by the devastating frostbite these poorly clad black troops endured on their way to the Barracks. Dr. Ira Russell attempted to help by tending the ill and performing an estimated 800 autopsies in order to pinpoint the causes of the epidemics infecting the soldiers of Benton Barracks. As Humphreys put it, the health of these soldiers "was in the hands of [a] caring, competent" physician who was "dedicated to helping them survive wounds and the rigors of camp life" (102). Those African American troops who survived Benton Barracks were purposely relocated to New Orleans for Union officials believed that their built in immunities could help secure New Orleans while simultaneously sparing white lives. In reality, the region became "a mass graveyard" as troops died of diseases to which they had no previous exposure or immunities (116). At the conclusion of the Civil War, the Union leadership sent those black troops without expired enlistments to secure the Texas borders. Stationed on the island of Brazos Santiago in the Rio Grande river, the troops were thirsty, starving, and in extremely poor health. They lacked fresh water and were reduced to rigging up primitive desalination machines which transformed salted ocean water into some sort of "barely drinkable brackish brew" (120). The men also suffered from scurvy. The Union command's response was to instruct the troops to acquire the appropriate curative fruits and vegetables. Such acquisitions proved elusive. At the conclusion of their enlistments, those that survived the horrors of Brazos Santiago returned to a world in which physicians continued to view African Americans as inherently and perpetually inferior and proceeded to codify such views in post-War publications.
While African American soldiers certainly died from disease at higher rates, because the racialized world view of Union medical personnel infected and informed the decision-making of the Union leadership, it is unlikely that "the war might have been over sooner had the Union taken better care of the black troops" as Humphreys claims (159). Moreover, held hostage to nineteenth century views of the black body, it is equally unlikely that the Union would have or could have offered African American soldiers' first rate treatment, for such treatment remained elusive for white soldiers. Humphreys overestimates the quality of treatment received by white troops. Overall, the Union medical corps was overwhelmed by and unprepared for the sheer mass of casualties. They relied on often unqualified doctors to tend to white and black troops and often suffered from devastating supply shortages. In no way, did white troops receive top notch treatment. They did however; certainly receive better treatment by degrees than black troops. Such quibbles aside, Mary Humphreys has written a thoroughly researched and intrinsically valuable study which is assured to enrich knowledge and understanding of the racialized nature of Civil War medical treatment.
University of Wyoming
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