African American Civil War contingent suffered unrivalled hardships

Over 100,000 African American troops formed part of the Union Army during the American Civil War from 1861-65. Most fought with the Unionists to put an end of slavery, since many had been slaves themselves.

The Union’s ex-slave contingent fought bravely against the Confederate Army, which supported the use of slaves in its southern states. But none of them could escape the fatal diseases that swept through the soldiers who lived in often terrible conditions.

The Library of Congress says that almost a third of African American soldiers died, not from the fighting but from disease. The main diseases spreading throughout the troops and population at the time were pneumonia, malaria, dysentery, small pox and typhoid fever.One African American division had half (just over 500) of its soldiers die of illness in one year alone, and it is documented that many would simply drop dead in the street.

It was a biological disaster caused by unclean quarters, dead bodies lying around and not enough health care to care for the dying, injured or sick. Records state that more than 400,000 troops died from disease alone.

In the book Gettysburg Requiem, it says that the airborne diseases and lack of medical skills meant that disease was the soldier’s worst enemy, not battle. The ratio 1:2 for every soldier killed in battle versus those killed by disease.

The problem was further exacerbated by doctors and medical staff not being willing to care for the African American troops as much as they were for the white troops.

Camp conditions were appalling, but for African American soldiers it was worse. They died at a rate of 2.5 times higher than white soldiers, the OZY News reports.

Discrimination and prejudice against the African American troops meant that they got paid less, were poorly equipped, and did not have sufficient health care. Unfortunately there were only three African American doctors in the Union Army.

As African American people were gradually becoming liberated from slavery, the Civil War continued meaning that many would lose touch with their families and communities. The African American people became disbanded and many were left without homes, food, or medical care. Illness and disease was also a threat to them, and the remaining three and a half million slaves who were freed when the Civil War ended.

In 1868 the 14th Amendment enabled freed slaves to get US citizenship. However the war, disease, poverty and discrimination had taken its toll on the African American community across the country.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE