Emancipated from slavery, former bondspeople entered into an environment in which more soldiers died from disease than from battle. This talk explores the high rate of illness and mortality that devastated formerly enslaved people during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In particular, it provides the first analysis of the smallpox epidemic that began in Washington, DC in 1862 and then spread to the Lower South in 1863 and Mississippi Valley in 1864-65. By 1865, the epidemic plagued the entire South and began to move west and infected Native Americans on reservations. Due to the unexpected and inordinate mortality, the federal government in an unprecedented move established the first-ever system of national health care in the South--establishing over 40 hospitals, employing over 120 physicians and treating well-over one million freedpeople.
Jim Downs is the Gilder Lehrman-National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Civil War Era Studies and History. He is the author of Sick From Freedom: African American Sickness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford UP, 2012), Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016) and Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine (Harvard UP, 2021) which has been translated into Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, and Russian.
.MP4, 320 MB
public health, smallpox, American history, freedpeople, formerly enslaved people, American Civil War (United States : 1861-1865)
Downs, Jim, "Sick from Freedom: The Untold Story of a Smallpox Epidemic Among Formerly Enslaved People" (2023). Rondel V. Davidson Endowed Lecture Series. 10.