For 2,000 freed slaves, only disease and death awaited

“When the military abandoned the freedpeople in the final months of the war at a Union camp in North Carolina, sickness and disease escalated; the military left no personnel or medical assistance for unemployed former slaves. According to the chief surgeon in North Carolina, General Sherman sent about 10,000 freedpeople ‘down the Cape Fear River to Wilmington’ and established a camp for them at Fort Anderson on Cape Fear. However, sickness plagued this camp. The several doctors present could not prevent the rampant spread of disease….

“An estimated 2,000 freedpeople died at Fort Anderson between March 17 and May 31, 1865 — an average of 30 ex-slaves a day….

“Who counted the dead? Was it the shocking discovery of their bodies or the questions of where they would be buried that led to this estimate? Since there was not, as the [camp’s] chief surgeon asserted, a hospital to care for them or even a mechanism to report on their sickness, there likely was no infrastructure in place to bury them. Why would here be? Their migration to Cape Fear resulted only from Sherman’s order, not from any formal plan for the emancipation of 4 million people.”

— From “Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction” by Jim Downs (2012)

 

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