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Intensely Human

The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War

Margaret Humphreys

Publication Year: 2008

Black soldiers in the American Civil War were far more likely to die of disease than were white soldiers. In Intensely Human, historian Margaret Humphreys explores why this uneven mortality occurred and how it was interpreted at the time. In doing so, she uncovers the perspectives of mid-nineteenth-century physicians and others who were eager to implicate the so-called innate inferiority of the black body. In the archival collections of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Humphreys found evidence that the high death rate among black soldiers resulted from malnourishment, inadequate shelter and clothing, inferior medical attention, and assignments to hazardous environments. While some observant physicians of the day attributed the black soldiers' high mortality rate to these circumstances, few medical professionals—on either side of the conflict—were prepared to challenge the "biological evidence" of white superiority. Humphreys shows how, despite sympathetic and responsible physicians' efforts to expose the truth, the stereotype of black biological inferiority prevailed during the war and after.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xx

“Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he issupposed to be doing at that moment.”1 Thus Robert Benchley advised his readers in an essay on procrastination and accomplishment. He had five tasks to do, and he put writing a newspaper article at the top of the list. He spent the rest of the day not working on the article, but he finished the...

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1 The Black Body at War

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pp. 1-13

It was all going to be over in ninety days. Hurrah, boys, hurrah! But after the battles of Bull Run and Fort Donelson, of Shiloh and Seven Pines, after a year of encounters big and small, the nations faced the reality that this war would be prolonged and bloody...

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2 The Pride of True Manhood

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pp. 14-37

The decision to enroll black men into northern armies was made amid a complex discourse about the black body and its capacity for full manhood. Some northern reformers argued that the great transition from slavery to freedom could be partially effected by turning slaves into soldiers, and soldiers into full citizens....

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3 Biology and Destiny

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pp. 38-56

Physicians and other learned men of mid-nineteenth-century America were certain that the black body was biologically different and distinct from the white one.1 This conclusion went beyond general assumptions about manhood and endurance to embrace a catalog of various conditions of difference...

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4 Medical Care

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pp. 57-79

Even by the standards of the time, African American regiments received decidedly second-class medical care. Like the wag’s complaint that the food was terrible and there was not enough of it, for these men there were too few doctors, and many of them lacked compassion and skill....

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5 Region, Disease, and the Vulnerable Recruit

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pp. 80-103

Thus far we have considered black soldiers and their overall experiences, without consideration of regional differences. The list of factors influencing black health was largely the same everywhere, but the strength of each influence varied widely depending on place...

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6 Louisiana

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pp. 104-118

“The Fourth of July 1863 was the most memorable Independence Day in American history since that first one four score and seven years earlier,” historian James McPherson has written.1 It was indeed a momentous day...

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7 Death on the Rio Grande

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pp. 119-141

Noah Davis had traveled many miles since those exciting days in the fall of 1863, when he joined the 8th U.S. Colored Infantry regiment at Camp William Penn, near Philadelphia. His regiment first moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and then...

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8 Telling the Story

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pp. 142-153

The most curious feature of postwar accounts of the black soldier’s body is the missing perspective of the sympathetic physician. Ira Russell published two papers based on his experience at Benton Barracks, but their critique of the overall treatment of the black soldier is fairly mild and makes no direct charges of abuse...

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pp. 154-160

Around 180,000 black men went to war; something like 143,000 came home. More than 8,000 of those men received honorable discharge for disabilities, with the most important diagnoses being tuberculosis, chronic diarrhea, rheumatism, and hernias...


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pp. 161-190


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pp. 191-197

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402383
E-ISBN-10: 1421402386
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801886966
Print-ISBN-10: 0801886961

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 3 halftones, 7 line drawings
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 606056281
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Intensely Human

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Health aspects.
  • Masculinity -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Participation, African American.
  • Human body -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Racism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Social aspects
  • Russell, Ira, 1815-1888.
  • African American soldiers -- Health and hygiene -- History -- 19th century.
  • African American soldiers -- Mortality -- History -- 19th century.
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