Book Review: Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War


by Margaret Humphreys

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xx, 197. Illus., map, tables, notes, index. $40.00. ISBN:0801886961

An inquiry into the reasons for the great disparity between black and white troops in the rate of deaths from disease during the Civil War.  At the time, most white authorities attributed the disparity in disease rates to the physical, mental, and moral "inferiority" of persons of African descent. 

Prof. Humphreys, who teaches the history of medicine at Duke University , challenges this view.  She notes that, based on admittedly fragmentary records, African-American recruits, most of whom were newly freed slaves, were generally less healthy than white recruits when they entered the service, due to poor diet, medical care, and living conditions in childhood, as well as lax recruiting standards.  Once in the army, black troops were usually less-well provided with medical care, and, although usually kept from combat (on the assumption that they would not fight well), were frequently assigned to occupation duties in some of the most unhealthy areas of the South. 

The work fails to note that some problems of black troops were common to all soldiers.  She notes, for example, that African-American troops were often provided with worm-infested rations and shoddy uniforms, conditions about which white troops often complained as well.  Prof. Humphreys also fails to consider whether the effective ban on using black troops in combat may have resulted in a seemingly higher disease rate.  Most black regiments saw little or no combat; only three regiments are in "Fox's 300," the classic list of the most heavily engaged Union units. 

Despite these problems, Intensely Human is a well written, valuable work.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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