Segment from Contagion

Not So Safe Space

Ed speaks with historian Jim Downs about how disease devastated populations of escaped slaves in contraband camps behind Union lines during and after the Civil War.

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PETER: This is BackStory, the show that turns to history to help untangle the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf, the 18th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century History Guy. Today on the show, we’re looking at how the authorities in the US have responded or not responded to outbreaks of contagious disease.

PETER: In the first part of our show, we looked at how an aggressive government response to smallpox at the turn of the 20th century sparked a fierce battle over civil liberties. Now, we’re going to turn the clock back just a little to the 1860s. It’s the midst of the Civil War, and Southerners are fighting on two fronts.

On the one hand, Perryville, Shiloh, Vicksburg, on the other, smallpox, an epidemic swept south from Washington, DC, in 1862. And for the next few years, the disease decimated military and civilian populations alike.

ED: Recently freed slaves were among the hardest hit. After emancipation, they could move freely for the first time in their lives. But as millions of freed people spread out across the South to escape the fighting, they nearly all lacked adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care. And it’s hard to imagine a situation really more suited for a catastrophic outbreak of disease. I recently sat down with Jim Downs, an historian at Connecticut College, to talk about this little-known episode in our nation’s past.

JIM DOWNS: What I started to think about was what did it mean for enslaved people to actually liberate themselves from Southern plantations? And so we have this triumphant narrative that they run away. But where do they run to? And where do they sleep? And where do they eat? And how do they survive?

And so oftentimes, yes, there were cases in which the Union Army offered them shelter behind Union lines. But then all of these questions developed. Where would they find clothing and food? And the army didn’t have the resources. And it wasn’t because the army was a pernicious institution. It just often didn’t have enough resources for their own men.

ED: Yeah, it wasn’t built for this purpose.

JIM DOWNS: It wasn’t built for this, exactly right. And so they don’t have the resources available. And so as a result, they enter into these various refugee and contraband camps where all of these men are already suffering from pneumonia and from various other epidemic problems, which is the reason why Northern reformers decided to organize the Sanitary Commission.

ED: So people who have not paid too much attention to Civil War might not know what a contraband camp is. Maybe you could describe that for us, Jim.

JIM DOWNS: The contraband camp is essentially this refugee camp that sort of develops in response to this question of these various former slaves who fled to Union lines throughout the war. And so what happens is throughout the South, in various Union camps, there are these makeshift communities that form around the perimeter of Union camps.

And they’re considered contrabands. This is the military’s term to refer to newly emancipated slaves. In large part, it’s because they really don’t know what to call them at that particular moment, so they refer to them with this term contraband.

ED: So if their owners are claiming that they’re property, they’re saying, fair enough. Now you’re property of war.


ED: Which is what contraband would mean, right?

JIM DOWNS: Right. This is the world of freedom. This is the world that emancipated slaves entered. And many of these emancipated slaves living in these camps are often forced to go from one camp to the next, and they’re constantly on the move.

And this form of dislocation accelerates the spread of disease. And then also at that time, it’s the mid-19th century, and there are conflicting understandings about disease causation.

ED: So they have some idea that cleanliness is good, but they don’t really know why.


ED: And one of the horrific stories that you tell– maybe we could focus on it a little bit now– is the smallpox epidemic that emerges in this period, right after, kind of overlaps with the end of the Civil War, then extends beyond it, right?

JIM DOWNS: That’s right. So I started to first uncover references of the smallpox epidemic in Washington, DC, in the winter of 1862. By 1865 and early parts of 1866, the virus moved from the upper South into the Carolinas, into the Sea Islands, where it was infecting well over– I mean, these numbers are outrageous– but well over 800 people a week.

ED: Wow.

JIM DOWNS: The military doesn’t know what to do. And some of the military officials try to quarantine these emancipated slaves. Yet at the same time, there’s an uncertainty on how to even, where to quarantine them. Some people fall back on this idea that of course black people are dying at this moment. It began to sort of fulfill their idea, this sort of popular fiction of the 19th century that black people would go extinct if freed.

So there aren’t efforts to isolate the virus or investigate it. And it’s so interesting, because if one case of smallpox broke out in either a Confederate or a Union camp, they immediately declared there was an epidemic. And they would follow–

ED: Among the soldiers.

JIM DOWNS: Soldiers, among the soldiers, right, they would immediately declare there was an epidemic, and they would try to follow either a quarantine, which is a basic form of isolating the infected person. Or they would even go into inoculation or vaccination, which were two rudimentary forms of trying to prevent the virus among other susceptible people. But there was something done. And you could argue about the medical efficacy of it, but there was some policy in place.

ED: They at least tried.

JIM DOWNS: They at least tried. Yeah, they at least tried.

ED: Now, what’s a person with smallpox look like? What are the symptoms, Jim?

JIM DOWNS: So this is one of the questions that I have throughout writing this book. And there are no references. I mean, there are no images of emancipated slaves with smallpox. I can’t find any. And I started to realize that part of it was that the people that were in the South that were interested in helping emancipated slaves did not want to promote that image to other people in the federal government or back to the north.

ED: Right.

JIM DOWNS: And that black people themselves completely understood that if their family members were seen as being infected with smallpox that this could be problematic. So they’re hidden. I mean, they’re hidden from people in the 19th century, and they’re hidden from historians today.

ED: Do you have any sense, Jim, of how many people were lost in the smallpox epidemics of the immediate postwar era?

JIM DOWNS: It’s so hard, because the numbers often contradict each other. The first part that I would say is that in the very early part of the war, there was no mechanism or protocol within the military’s bureaucratic structure to even track the mortality. So people were dying constantly and no one was keeping an actual count. I mean, my rough estimate– I mean, I don’t even–

ED: I’m not going to force you.

JIM DOWNS: Yeah, no, no. This is like a question that you would get when I was defending my dissertation, and I always tried to dance around it. But I can’t. I’ve got to do it.

ED: Sorry, I don’t want you to have a flashback here.

JIM DOWNS: No, it’s already, it’s already there. The flashback has happened. So I would argue that over a million we know sought medical care. There is one estimate that over 60 to 70,000 died from smallpox. I actually would put it higher. I would say probably at least a quarter million.

I mean, the doctors write constantly in panic that they can’t even keep accurate notes. And then when they do, they report 700. And then you have to say, how do you count 700 people? I mean, there’s just so many issues with this. But it definitely is a large portion.

And this is the other part that I’m trying to deal with in the book is that even for those who don’t die, for those who witnessed a death of kin, the death of other people in their community, they’re still left with the scars of the epidemic. And I think that that certainly shaped their transition into freedom, into emancipation, that even if they survived in good health, what did it mean for them to know that family members, members of their community died in this very ironic unexpected turn of liberation.

ED: In the first moments of freedom.

JIM DOWNS: In the first moments of freedom, yeah.

ED: Jim Downs is an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College. His new book is called Sick From Freedom, African American Illnesses and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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Not So Safe Space Listening Notes By Hayley Duncan, Middle School Social Studies Teacher, Lake Lure Classical Academy