President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation gifted freedom to four million black Americans in 1863
Former slaves struggled to begin their free life and up to one million died or got sick
Challenges the accepted wisdom of the Unionist North being sympathetic to the cause of freed slaves
Whole families returned to work on the plantations they had escaped because there was no work and no food.
The end of slavery in the United States led to anarchy and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of black Americans claims a new revisionist history of the Civil War.
Instead of a granting former slaves a glorious moment of freedom, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation condemned millions to a life of disease and hunger says historian Jim Downs in his new book, ‘Sick from Freedom’.
Scouring through obscure records, Professor Downs has revealed that freed slaves were subject to outbreaks of cholera and smallpox as they attempted to start new lives for themselves and that thousands starved to death.
Writing about the period of 1862 to 1870, Professor Downs claims that one million of the four million salves former slaves freed by Lincoln’s 1863 executive order died or got sick.
This number includes at least 60,000 who lost their lives in a smallpox epidemic that started in Washington and spread to the south as black Americans left their former slave-masters in order to find work.
Calling this ‘the largest biological crisis of the 19th century’, Downs states that this tragedy has failed to be acknowledged because it does not match with the rosy view of the Civil War being a fight between the Unionist North and Confederate South for God-given rights.
The freed people we want to see are the ones with all their belongings on the wagon, heading towards freedom,’ said David W. Blight, a professor of history at Yale to the New York Times.
‘But the truth is, for every person making it there may have been one falling by the way.’
As the anniversary of President Lincoln’s order approaches, Mr. Downs, 39, is part of new school of thought re-addressing commonly held beliefs about the history of emancipation.
‘We’re getting ready to celebrate 150 years of the movement from slavery to freedom,’ said Professor Downs to the New York Times.
‘But hundreds of thousands of people did not survive that movement.’
In fact in the years following 1863, the public health problems that freed slaves experienced attempting to set up their own homes, getting jobs and feeding their families seemed so intense that some historical observers wondered whether all black Americans might die.
In 1863, one white religious figure wrote, ‘Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever from the midst of us.’
While the accepted view is that the Unionist North was sympathetic to the plight of all southern slaves, Professor Downs feels that there was in fact an element of turning a blind eye to the problems the newly freed people experienced.
‘In the 19th century people did not want to talk about it,’ said Professor Downs to the Observer.
‘Some did not care and abolitionist, when they saw so many freed people dying, feared that it proved true what some people said: that slaves were not able to exist on their own.’
Professor Downs paints a desperate picture of freed families staggering away from southern plantations and finding themselves in Union run ‘contraband camps’ struggling for food and living in unsanitary conditions.
His book points out the irony that these camps were sometimes no better than the freed slaves previous living conditions and that the only way out was to offer to return to the same plantations from which they had escaped.
In ‘Sick from Freedom’ Professor Downs recounts the tragic story of one former slave, Joseph Miller, who arrived at a union camp in Kentucky with his wife and four children in 1864 and watched them all die within months, before he died in 1865.
During his research, Professor Downs discovered the horrific conditions within what were essentially refugee camps doted around the south.
A military official with the Union army wrote that life for the former slaves was so appalling that they were: ‘dying by scores – that sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagon-loads without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench.’
Not wishing to cast aspersions on the Emancipation Proclamation, for which Professor Downs still holds its true moral value, he nonetheless wants to bring a fuller picture to the public.
‘I’ve been alone with these people in the archives,’ said Professor Downs. ‘I have a responsibility to tell their stories.’
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