Friday, January 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Intensely Human

Over the last decade or so, scholarly studies have provided us with a wealth of information on black Civil War soldiers. Rather recent regimental histories, battle accounts, post-war studies, and even healthcare-focused works give students a richer idea than ever before about how United States Colored Troops experienced their military service.

Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War by Margaret Humphreys, examines the quality of healthcare provided to USCT men. Black Union soldiers died of disease at a significantly higher rate than their white comrades. Humphreys attempts to explain why this was true. She puts forward several causes for higher black mortality.

First, black troops were often sent to some of the most unhealthy regions of the conflict. Once there, USCTs were far more likely than their white comrades to be relegated to exhaustive labor details, like building roads, fortifications, repairing railroads, and clearing timber. Such labor intensive responsibilities combined with poor nutrition dropped soldiers' immune levels and subjected the men to a wide range of diseases. Cases of typhoid, dysentery, pulmonary issues, and small pox ravaged black troops, especially those in coastal South Carolina, southern Georgia/northern Florida, and Louisiana.

A second factor that Humphreys discusses at length is that many army physicians of the era, much like the larger white population, held racist views. Many whites of the period not only thought that blacks were intellectually and socially inferior to whites, they also believed that blacks were innately not as healthy as whites. This belief too often led to physicians' neglecting to properly treat black troops, thinking that their efforts were often in vain due to blacks' natural inability to fight off disease. Other contributing factors to high rates of USCT disease and mortality included inadequate shelter and clothing issues.

Using a number of primary sources, including archival collections from the United States Sanitary Commission, white officers' personal letters, and black soldiers' letters to black newspapers back in their home communities, Humphreys offers readers sad insights into cases of neglect and needless suffering. Perhaps Intensely Human's saddest chapter is chapter seven, which describes the transfer of numerous USCT regiments to the Texas/Mexico border after the war's end to serve out their enlistment periods. There black soldiers suffered from a lack of drinkable water and a severe shortage of fruits and vegetables, which led to a dramatic spike in cases of scurvy, and ultimately soldier deaths.

While Humphreys focuses largely on the failures and neglect of black soldier healthcare within the Union army, it would made for a more thorough study to have filled out this rather slim volume with additional information on the African American physicians, nurses, and orderlies, who toiled without recognition, as well as coverage of the more successful USCT healthcare facilitates that treated black soldiers.

Intensely Human is a fine addition to the ever-growing body of USCT scholarship and an important read for any student of the Civil War. I recommend it.


  1. Tim, as always I enjoy reading your latest reviews. Your reviews are insightful and provide me with many ideas to which books I would like to read in the future. Currently, I am into the third volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War. This has been a monumental undertaking considering that each volume is over a 1,000 pages in length, but well worth the effort. I generally focus on the war in the Eastern Theatre, primarily the Army of Northern Virginia. Reading Foote's work has given me a better understanding and appreciation of the war in the West.

    One General that I find very interesting is Patrick Cleburne. It has long been my contention that for the common citizen and soldier of the South that the war was about much more the issue of slavery. I think that the following quote from General Cleburne exemplifies the general thoughts of the people of the South during that time period - "It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give up it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties."

    Another quote from Cleburne provides food for thought - "Surrender means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy, that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; learn from northern schools THEIR version of the war, and taught to regard our gallant dead as traitors and our maimed veterans as fit subjects of derision."

  2. Hi Paul, Thank you for continuing to read my blog. I read Foote's complete trilogy many years ago. He is an excellent story teller. Everyone has their own preferences for styles of writing. Narratives, such as Foote's, are extremely popular. In the last 10-15 years, I've gravitated more toward scholarly studies that attempt to answer historical questions and offer thesis arguments. It can make for challenging reading sometimes, but I find them intellectually stimulating more often that not.

    Cleburne is a fascinating figure. His biography by Criag Symonds is an excellent work. The quotes you provided are from his "memorial" in which proposed to enlist enslaved men to fight for the Confederacy. Written in both a legalistic and persuasive style, Cleburne put forth a well-reasoned argument. How well it would have worked out in a practical manner is up for debate. Apparently though, those above him were not quite as ready to sacrifice the institution as he claimed. And I have doubts that the common slaveowning citizens of the Confederacy would given up their valuable "property" or the social systme that derived from them. Although the plan received endorsement by several of Cleburne's subordinates, Gen. Johnston forwarded it to Pres. Davis, who had it suppressed. Other division and corps commanders in the Army of Tennessee were outraged at Cleburne's plan.

    Interestingly, in my opinion, Cleburne's thought that the war "will be written by the enemy" proved incorrect, at least for about the 80 years following the war. The "Lost Cause" interpretation of the of the war prevailed through at least the 1960s, and not just in the South.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. That's partly why I created this forum. My hope is for it to be a place where people can come to share their perspectives in a civil and productive manner.
    Best - Tim