museum review / science

How The Sacrifices of Black Civil War Troops Advanced Medicine

A new museum exhibit in Philadelphia showcases the first public health record of African Americans.
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Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army. The first encampment for training black troops was Camp William Penn, located in what is now Cheltenham.

Opened in June 26, 1863, the camp – the only one set up exclusively to train black troops — was fully operational by Independence Day. Eventually, about 11,000 men passed through the gates of the camp. Of these, about 1,000 would be killed in action or die of disease.

“Black troops were susceptible to everything from smallpox to typhus to lung infections,” said Hicks. “They died at almost twice the rate of white soldiers, with a 5 percent mortality rate compared with 2.9 percent among white troops.”

Smallpox was six to seven times more prevalent among black soldiers than white, scurvy was five times higher, while lung inflammation and bronchial diseases were two to five times higher. Death rates from syphilis were lower for black soldiers than for whites, but acute diarrhea was higher in black troops.

“Everyone understood  … a wound is a wound. But when it came to disease, that was a different question, and the Union Army learned that mortality for black soldiers from disease was much higher than whites,” said Hicks.

Understanding why black soldiers were so much more vulnerable to disease puzzled some white Union doctors, but is stunningly obvious now.  Medical care in that era wasn’t particularly good for anyone, but white doctors who had never treated black patients could be particularly ineffective.

“Doctors were trained to appreciate a person’s physical appearance, their ancestry, their education, the place where they grew up, and their moral qualities when considering the sum total of human physiology,” Hicks said.

All of which was useless in understanding the real problems black troops faced.

For one thing, black troops who had been on plantations as slaves never had the chance to develop immunities to diseases that white troops had encountered in towns and cities earlier in life.

But there was more.  On top of the poor equipment and supplies they were given, black regiments often had fewer physicians attached per regiment (about 1,000 men at full strength), compared with white regiments.
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