Blog Post

Jim Downs's Sick from Freedom: My Response So Far

     Let me say up front that this is not a formal review of Jim Downs's Sick from Freedom, because I am not yet done with the book. I am only in fact on Chapter Five. I should wait to respond until I have completed the book, but I have some thoughts floating around in my head that need to be expressed. But first a quick description of this text, the first third of it anyway.

     As far as I can tell, Downs's intent is (1) to provide a history of healthcare available to African American freedmen during the years of the Civil War and Reconstruction and (2) to complicate the very idea of emancipation by arguing that the struggles African Americans faced outweighed triumphs. Downs doesn't suggest that there were no victories, but instead that, because of the monumental health challenges faced, emancipation is better thought of as a process rather than as an event. For readers who are new to this debate in history's emancipation studies (I'm not only new but, as a rhetorician, clearly an outsider), there has been a concern for some time that the field has fallen too far on the side of focusing on narratives of triumph. It also would appear that emancipation scholars have been rethinking the focus on agency, which undoubtedly was partly a response to old ways of doing history, i.e. privileging the voices of officials and the records their communications gave birth to.

     Migrating circuitously to history from my own field of rhetoric and composition, I am somewhat new to these issues though matters of voice--whose truth, who gets to speak, or to tell the story--are of utmost importance to my area as well. Still, I've been using Gordon Wood's critique of recent historiography, The Purpose of the Past, to assist me in understanding what's at issue and at stake. I know just enough about the debates I've described to recognize the schools that have cropped up, and I identify Woods with a traditional view, which may have greater faith in the historian's ability to write objectively than do those he calls critical historians, scholars who  bring theory to bear on their understandings of the past, or those who he says take a presentish approach, actually, using the past to correct the present. The latter for sure he sees as largely political in their purposes.

     I've called upon Wood also because I want ot understand where Downs's new book fits in these debates and, more specifically because, as I read I'm finding myself most interested in the historiography, both the kinds of documents that he uses to create the history and the "sense of things" that he draws from them. Wood maintains that good historical writing is written by scholars who have a "historical sense." They do not distort the past by the present but, rather, see history's actors/actresses and events within their historical contexts. So, what would Wood say about the history of emancipation written by Downs?

     I don't know, but here's my guess. Downs does some things right, and some things wrong. First, though Sick from Freedom is not explicity framed by or infused with critical theory (it doesn't claim a Marxist analysis, for instance), labor issues are at the center of the author's understanding of why emancipation turned out to be such an atrocity in the United States. Downs is in fact indignant, implying at one point that the negligence seen (but not yet admitted to) in American emancipation might well be defined as a crime against humanity. He does not harp on this, but such strong words cannot be ignored. At other times, he deeply laments the absence of the freedmen's voices, testimonies that would tell other truths about what happened as blacks crossed Union lines. Even while he garners evidence in support of his thesis that the federal army's (and government's) labor necessity was at the root of the negligence, he also offers an emotional response, admitting that he may be falling into the same trap as one of the missionaries whose text he uses--"hooked by the drama of death and dying." What is the reader to make of Downs's self-reflexivity? Is he being ingenuous? Downs resurrects voices from the missionary's memoir and suggests that those voices are needed in order to learn how things could have been and "how it all went down." He then asks, "What shall we do?" rejecting the act of allowing the freedpeople's voices to "linger" in, I assume, seldom-read texts.

     No doubt Downs's book has an audience and, if so, then so do those of the missionaries that poured into the South during the war. Those scholars of American history focusing on emancipation, especially those studying lately contraband camps, are considered the vanguard as one leading scholar recently described the "movement" to me. Yet, the question remains whether the voices of the former slaves themselves still linger, if after numbers of scholars publish numbers of books, those voices will remain either hidden within too-seldom-read texts (scholars writing to each other) or treated in such a manner as to advance a theory and/or perspective. I have real concern that Downs's implicit labor theory, for instance, robs freed blacks of their agency. Perhaps not intentionally, he generally describes fugitives mostly as victims, which there can be no doubt they were, yet I am refocused by Robert Engs' long-ago comment: 

Most of our workson blacks in the post-bellum era portray them primarily as victims...Those descriptions of the black man's plight...are all too accurate. Nevertheless, we need to understand more about the black man's response to the problems he encountered in the War, Reconstruction, and New South. The people we now know to have been remarkably resourceful as slaves logically would not have been less so once they were emancipated.

     I cannot agree with Downs more that blacks were used, that the labor need determined so much including, according to Downs, the question of whether blacks would even be allowed into camp. And certainly, he explains, it played a central role in the quality of healthcare or lack thereof.  What drove the eventual provision of care was the need of masses of workers, "able-bodied" persons rather than sick ones, not a humanitarian response. This is such a critically important point that I am celebtrating Downs's making it. It urges readers to take a moral stand on the atrocity. But, this is the very kind of thing that Wood has a problem with, right? Downs is not seeing Union officials in the context in which they existed, understanding their actions within that time, but rather criticizing them. Isn't he?

     I do not share Wood's concern. Again, he is simply helping me to place Downs within the debate so that I can ask and answer whether Downs's book contibutes to a recognition of black agency. In the first part of the book, other than a few stories that are told, for example, of one fugitive whose entire family perishes for want of healthcare and from forced and inconvenient continual migrations (from camp to camp), Downs works hard at explaining just how underfunded and understaffed the medical division was, how such an office was tied up in politics and bureaucracy, and how prejudice and racism influenced views of and treatment for the phenomenon of smallpox among the fugitive population. Make no mistake, if not in Wood's view then in mine, this is significant critical work that may have political implications in the real world if the right people get a hold of it. I'm excited. However, as someone who also has been researching in this area, I cannot help but to be distrubed by the absence of a fuller inclusion of freedmen and women's voices.

     I have come to know some of the emancipated personally through studying what, from my perspective, is a preponderance of records. Take Africa Bailey, about whom I wrote in my last post. A narrative is coming together from several types of records, a will, a camp register, a half dozen or more Freedmen's Bureau Bank Records, three or four affidavits, not to mention pension files and service records. In 1844, Bailey and his wife Emma had at least two living children (possibly three), and we know from his bank application of 1867 that all and subsequent grandchildren as well were deceased. Only he and Emma were alive at this point, yet such enormous losses did not keep Bailey from going on in the months after the end of the war to found Second Baptist Church at the very site of Fort Pickering in Memphis or to become a founding member of various fraternal and benevolent societies in the city. We also see him encouraging other former soldiers, he himself having served in the U.S.C.T. under no lesser a figure than Superintendent of Contraband John Eaton, Jr.  There is a fuller story still of Africa and Emma's life during the war and after that is able to be told today; our ability to tell it relies on many other kinds of documents--the U.S. Census, genealogies, church histories, etc.--some of the kinds of sources family history researchers use, ones that hopefully are not considered pedestrian by university-trained historians. This is no small point. Perhaps I have raised it elsewhere. Maybe it needs to be raised even more. So far, the kinds of documents on which Downs relies to get the story, again, do not place front and center direct evidence of the freedmen's lives. That they do not lift up their voices allows the scholar to create a somewhat objective (taking into consideration all of the problems this term carries), largely scientific argument such that his moments of indignation, as righteous as these are, do not fit the larger scheme of things.

     Downs's text is not a case study; it is not biography, and because not one would expect the freedmen's voices to take a back seat to other evidence, interpretation of that evidence, and reasoning. but there is just one problem with this focus: the freedmen were there, and surely they have their own stories to tell.

     Lastly, and I admit this is petty, but I must say it: what an unfortunate, though admittedly provocative, title. Thus provoked, I promise to finish the book. Doing so will no doubt be well worth my time.





Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. I have also struggled with the issue of inclusion. The dispossessed are, almost by definition, excluded from the historical record. There are ways of reading between the lines and against the grain. But even then you find only an echo. Often you are merely left with questions. It is a weighty task to attempt to restore a voice to the voiceless. The most voiceless of all are the dead, and Downs's use of statistics to trace disease epidemics, although not as dramatic as a diary or a court case, may be as close as we can get to the experience of many former slaves. Perhaps it is good enough to offer a new piece among other pieces in a larger puzzle. Have you read Andrew Ward's The Slaves' War?


Thanks Joseph.

I have read The Slave's War. I love that book and quote from it all the time. I was in fact just looking at it yesterday.

I suspect that really scholars have only begun to explore the archived information that exists especially in Civil War pension files. Some of those contain pretty lengthy narratives. I've read one that tells everyone who left the plantation, where they left from, who got lost as they moved, how long it took to reunite, and on and on. Digitization promises to make these records so much more convenient to study.

That said, Downs's book is without question a great contribution.