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"The contraband’s death is more miserable than her life": violence, visibility, and the medicalization of freedom in the American Civil War

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Susan-Mary Grant



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of a book chapter that has been published in its final definitive form by Routledge, 2019.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


As the backdrop to the increasingly acrimonious political debate over slavery in the years before the American Civil War, the Southern landscape was, for the northern public largely a static one, peopled by stereotypical images of masters and slaves. Once war broke out, and that landscape was transmuted into one of near-constant flux, its population, and especially its black population became more visible. As formerly enslaved black men joined the Union Army, many of their friends and families fled toward Union lines. Some reached the several hastily constructed refugee camps. Others failed to make it that far. Many suffered, sometimes died in pursuit of freedom. Both the medical and the gender implications of this population displacement have come under sustained scrutiny in recent years, as historians complicate the contours of the war’s militarized landscape the better to accommodate the experiences of women and children in it. In some cases, however, this has resulted in awkward anachronistic anomalies that abstract the emancipation experience from historical context. By revisiting contemporary accounts of, reports on, and official military, medical and legal records relevant to the Civil War’s black refugee crisis, this paper argues that northerners, long used to evoking the body politic in corporeal terms before the Civil War, perhaps inevitably located emancipation within a medical rather than a military discourse. And it was this medicalization of freedom that determined not just the immediate reaction to the displaced and dispossessed former slaves, but the longer-term direction of federal support accorded them.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Grant S-M

Editor(s): Laura R. Sandy and Marie S. Molloy

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: The Civil War and Slavery Reconsidered: Negotiating the Peripheries

Year: 2019

Pages: 145-168

Print publication date: 05/02/2019

Online publication date: 05/02/2019

Acceptance date: 05/11/2018

Series Title: Routledge Advances in American History

Publisher: Routledge

Place Published: London


DOI: 10.4324/9780429059605-8

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9780367181222