Disease and Slavery

Freed slaves entered emancipation in a time marked by conflict in 1862-1865, in which a significant amount of soldiers died from camp diseases including pneumonia, typhus, and dysentery. As a result, the the institution of slavery fell, and countless former slaves lost their lives. In an era before the germ theory, dysentery, typhoid fever, smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera outbreaks filled the Civil War South. Enslaved people had developed natural remedies while living under slavery, but the war took them from the resources that they relied on to create such remedies. Efforts to spread cleanliness were ineffective in  the smallpox and cholera epidemics that broke out during the war. Disease and sickness had more a devastating and fatal effect for emancipated slaves than white soldiers, since they often lacked the basic necessities to survive. The ratio of the number of deaths due to disease versus wounds was much higher for African American soldiers than for white soldiers. The higher death rate for slaves was due to the emancipated men being weak and more susceptible to disease from poor living conditions, unhealthy posts, unbalanced diets, and indifferent treatment. (4)

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Emancipation liberated bondspeople but they weren’t provided with clean clothing, shelter, proper food, and access to any sort of medicine in their journey toward Union lines. Many died once they secured refuge in Union camps. Within the span of political history, 1862 to 1870 represents a short timeframe. Yet, 8 years is a long time to struggle with inadequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. According to federal records, we see more than a million slaves requested medical assistances between 1865-186. To be expected, this number only reflects the number of freed slaves that federal officials encountered. Several more, who lived in rural regions, remain lost and not part of the government’s history. (4)

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