DSQ > Summer 2008, Volume 28, No.3

When historians explain the end of the American Civil War and the hope that the Reconstruction period proffered, they often rely on a number of pictorial images that portray the excitement and possibility that accompanied the end of slavery. One of the more popular images presents three African-American men—a farmer, a member of the urban elite, and a solider—casting "the first vote." This illustration, like many that circulated in the nineteenth century press and appear today in history textbooks, emphasizes the political opportunities engendered by the rebuilding of the nation after the Civil War. In many respects, the use of such images does make sense, as the Reconstruction period witnessed the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment, which provided citizenship to African-Americans; and the 15th Amendment, which granted African-Americans the right to vote.

Yet, the propagation of such images, which mostly portray African-American men as the symbol and embodiment of the Reconstruction period, unwittingly perpetrates a certain logic about the character of freed slaves and the general nature of emancipation. The men represented in the aforementioned image are all, to borrow from the nineteenth-century nomenclature, "able-bodied." The farmer, despite being dressed in raggedy clothing and appearing somewhat elderly, nevertheless would be seen as "able-bodied." The man standing behind him appears well-dressed, fit, and distinguished, and would also be marked as "able-bodied." Following him in line to vote is perhaps the ideal symbol of an able-bodied man: a black man in Union military clad. In fact, the use of the term "able-bodied," which has its roots in antebellum Northern discussions of the poor, served as the criterion for military service when Union Army officials evaluated formerly enslaved men during the Civil War.2

The political implication of showcasing "able-bodied" men as voters signified to both Northern Republicans, the then-champions of freed slaves, and to their white Southern adversaries, that freed slaves possessed the natural, mental, and, most of all, physical capability to handle the challenges of citizenship. Although this was an important claim, as white Southerners consistently lampooned the prospect of black people as independent and self-sufficient, the constant circulation of these images of freed slaves as "able-bodied" has obscured the experiences of hundreds of disabled, blind, and deaf freed slaves that were caught in the transition from slavery to freedom.

Examining the experiences of disabled freed slaves is necessary, and not only because it draws attention to a population of the ex-slave community that has been otherwise neglected. Moreover, the experience of disabled freed slaves forces us to reconsider our understanding of the process of emancipation, and the ways in which the meaning of freedom depended upon one's ability to work. The study of emancipation has often been closely related to the question of labor, in particular freed slaves' ability and willingness to work. In an effort to overturn previous historiographical interpretations of freed slaves as indolent, dependent, and in need of white supervision, historians of the last forty years or so have persuasively demonstrated the extent to which freed slaves eagerly yearned to find employment in order to support themselves in the aftermath of the Civil War. These historians have documented the powerful ways that freed slaves managed to carve out economic opportunity in the postwar South in the face of obdurate formers slaveholders who stood in the way of freedpeople's economic success. They have also detailed how freed slaves persevered, despite unfair wages or, in some cases, no wages at all,; shown how freed slaves held tightly to their visions of free labor despite poor soil, drops in the price of cotton, and even natural disaster; and provided compelling evidence of how freed slaves remained independent economic actors despite the enactment of "black codes" imposed by white Southerners that greatly regulated black political and economic opportunity.3 And so, the story of emancipation has often been told in terms of how freed slaves strove toward ideas of free labor, and how their labor exemplified their independence and political will.

Yet, when raising the question of what was the experience of disabled slaves during the Civil War and Reconstruction—a population of people that could not work independently because of their physical condition—a different narrative about emancipation emerges.4 In this version, labor was not the battle ground where one proved his independence, but rather the shackle that prohibited disabled slaves from escaping the plantations of the South. In other words, the experience of disabled slaves powerfully reveals the idea that freedom depended upon one's ability and potential to work.5 Slaves were not free because the Civil War ended or even because the federal government passed the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. Rather, slaves were freed because they were willing and able to work. The experience of disabled slaves exposes the extent to which slavery continued for those who could not leave the plantation South and were forced to remain under the thumb of former slaveholders long after the smoke of the Civil War cleared.

The process of emancipation began in some parts of the South as early as 1861, when Union military officials occupied a region of the Southern theater in which slaves lived. Once slaves heard of the advancing Union army, they typically fled from their plantations in hopes of finding refuge behind Union lines. While at first Union military officials denied these so-called fugitive slaves access to Union camps, by 1862 the Union Army developed a policy that responded to the thousands of slaves that charged their lines. The creation of the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 permitted former slaves to enter Union lines, but there was one caveat. In exchange for rations and shelter, freed slaves had to agree to perform arduous labor service. From digging ditches to caring for the sick to laundering uniforms and cooking meals, freed slaves gained their "freedom" through their employment. Importantly, their employment status rested on the fact that they were "able-bodied." The federal government never devised a formal definition on what actually constituted "able-bodied," but it seems that those freed slaves that became marked as able-bodied were always men, ranged in ages from 14-60, and, were, from the observations of the medical official, without any discernible or obvious physical handicaps. This was, however, a chaotic and often unorganized practice. In cases where Army surgeons were not present, military officials evaluated formerly enslaved men based on their own criteria. In a report to his supervising officer, Francis Sternberg, a Bureau agent in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, stated that since he had neither the time nor the means to investigate the applicants, he operated largely by guess.6

Because many federal officials believed that the success of Reconstruction depended on the employment of able-bodied freed slaves, the experience of physically disabled, blind, and deaf freed slaves has often been overlooked. Furthermore, because historians have emphasized the robust freed and healthy slave over the racist caricature representations that dominate the historical record of the early 20th century, they too have been blinded to the experience of those who did not fit the bill of the "able-bodied."7 Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, disabled, blind, and deaf slaves faced a questionable future. Their presence within both history and historiography transforms our understanding of the transition from slavery to freedom. To begin with, unlike slaves who could run toward freedom at the sound of the first Union gunshot, the disabled were forced to remain on the plantation and therefore within the institution of slavery. Thus, the history of emancipation has been, in essence, a history of able-bodied freed slaves, as disabled slaves, along with some children and elderly people, often could not escape the plantation South.

The Union army's preference for and accommodation of "able-bodied" slaves in turn tore at the roots of the slave community, separating disabled relatives from their able-bodied parents, siblings, and loved ones. A freedwoman in April 1866 requested of federal authorities that her mother, who was placed in a Freedmen's Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, be transported to her home in Richmond, Virginia. The woman stated that her mother "was between 60 and 70 and was very feeble in health." She further remarked that her mother "shall never be of any expense to the government if we can only get her here as my husband and myself anxiously desire to provide her comfort."8

Even after the war ended, former slaveholders and federal agents continued to rely on the notion of being "able-bodied" in order to begin the process of organizing a labor force. Government agents rounded up able-bodied men throughout various districts in the postwar South and sent them to areas in need of laborers.9 Since the federal government privileged the employment of able-bodied men, only able-bodied men could actually earn wages. Thus, earning wages enabled these newly freed men to pursue the prospect of land ownership—which for many freedpeople epitomized freedom. Therefore, being left outside of the labor force, disabled freed slaves lacked the means to earn wages, and thereby enjoy the benefits of freedom.

The history of disabled freed slaves further calls for a re-articulation of the meaning of freedom. While emancipation certainly posed a number of challenges for freed slaves, as it did not guarantee economic opportunity or political rights, the one defining aspect that distinguished emancipation from slavery was the ability to be mobile. As historian Eric Foner argues, "many [freedpeople] affirmed their newly acquired freedom by physical movement, separating themselves from their former owners, if only by a few miles." As one freedwomen explained to her owner, "If I stay here, I'll never know that I am free."10 Unable to leave the plantation, disabled slaves remained enslaved, despite the fact the Lincoln proclaimed emancipation in the Confederacy in 1863 and the federal government abolished slavery throughout the United States for good in 1865. That disabled freed slaves could not leave the plantation South and that plantation owners still controlled the course of their destiny powerfully reveals the astonishing fact that slavery remained intact at the moment of freedom. Consider Hannah, a blind slave who lived in the Natchez district. Her owner continued to find work for her in both his garden and in his home despite the ending of the institution of slavery.11 But Hannah was not alone. On a neighboring plantation in Natchez, two blind slaves remained enslaved on William Newtown Mercer's plantation.12 Not just in the Natchez district, but throughout the postbellum South, scores of disabled freed slaves remained enslaved. Their continual enslavement varied according to the wishes of their owners and their own physical predicament.

While not directly arguing that these slaveholders were benevolent for continuing to care for disabled slaves, historians have often viewed the continued employment of disabled slaves on plantations as charitable gestures by former slaveholders and have not seen their labor as a continuation of slavery.13 But by examining this scenario from the perspective of the slaveholder and not from the perspective of the slave, historians have failed to recognize the extent to which slavery continued for disabled slaves. From the vantage point of the slave, the master's decision to keep disabled slaves on the plantation perpetrated the institution of slavery, because it left power and decision-making in the hands of the slaveholder and prohibited the slave's mobility, which was the defining characteristic of freedom. Furthermore, despite massive emancipation and the abolition of slavery with the 13th amendment, the experience of disabled slaves did not in any way change and, therefore, enslavement continued regardless of the master's alleged good will.

The experience of disabled slaves challenges the rhetoric of freedom that dominates both the historical record and the historiography. Those interested in providing ex-slaves with freedom did not pursue such a course out of a moral obligation that viewed the institution of slavery as wrong, nor did they enact the call for freedom because they followed in the pursuit of the Revolutionary ideals of equality and liberty. Rather, federal officials created the discourse of freedom and removed slaves from the shackles of slavery in order for slaves to work, and the freed slaves needed to work so that the North would not assume that they would carry the financial burden of the decimated Southern economy. In fact, the first efforts undertaken by government officials to rebuild the South depended upon the labor of freed slaves. Home to thousands of slaves, the Sea Islands, which dot the South Carolina coast, became what historians have referred to as the "Rehearsal for Reconstruction." Orchestrated by the federal government during the Civil War, Union military officials along with Northern benevolent reformers attempted to get newly freed slaves to return to plantation labor and cultivate the cotton crop. The slaves in the Sea Islands were "free," but their freedom depended upon their willingness and ability to work. This "Rehearsal for Reconstruction," in essence, became an experiment on whether the ideology of free labor could be effective in a plantation economy, and revealed the extent to which federal government officials understood the meaning of freedom as inextricably intertwined with one's ability to work. 14

The centrality of labor to understandings of freedom is not so surprising given the context of the Civil War. In other words, the emphasis on labor accompanying the emancipation period—which at first glance may appear to be a cynical, ideological, or even a purely economic interpretation for the destruction of slavery—is one that nevertheless accords with the free labor ideology that spurred the war in the first place. The Civil War was not rooted in a moral or abolitionist campaign to destroy slavery, but rather in an economic claim to ensure that slavery would not spill into the Western territories and thereby diminish the free labor economy that characterized the antebellum North. The destruction of slavery has often been wrongly co-opted as a victory of good over evil, of the abolitionist over the slaveholder, and in so doing erases, or at least obscures the aspects of free labor ideology that caused the disunion of the nation. The power of the rhetoric of "freedom" and liberty which was then coupled with political advancement—citizenship and suffrage—has propagated a narrative of freedom that has eviscerated the labor components of this transition. Emancipation did not happen because of the good will or vision of Northern politicians, and if and when it did, it was always tied to one's ability to work.15 Thus, one's ability to work was never separated from one's ability to be free. And the experience of disabled slaves reveals this dynamic most powerfully.

In fact, the federal government's overwhelming concern with getting freed slaves to return to the plantation South to work led, in part, to the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the federal government through the War Department created the Freedmen's Bureau to assist slaves in their transition from slavery to freedom. While the Bureau included four main divisions—an education division, which contracted teachers and built schools for the freedpeople; a labor division, which mediated contracts between former slaves and plantation owners; a land division, which assisted freed slaves in the purchase of new land; and a medical division, which constructed hospitals and hired doctors to care for ex-slaves—what drove the development of these different divisions was the federal government's concern with establishing a free labor economy in the postbellum South. For example, the education division, while providing freed slaves with skills to read and to write, did so with the intention that freedpeople would be better equipped to compete in a free labor system.

From its inception, however, many in Congress, even those who greatly supported the plight of freed slaves, worried that if the federal government provided too much aid to former slaves, they would in turn not learn to work independently or aspire to political autonomy. As one leading government official famously announced, "[C]harity of the government must be guarded." As a result, the many circulars, resolutions, and memos that federal agents in Washington, D.C. distributed to their many agents in the postwar South consistently warned officers to be careful in allotting rations to unemployed former slaves to avoid encouraging dependency.16

That disabled slaves were virtually left enslaved under the control of plantation owners proves the extent to which the notion of freedom was consistently tied to questions of labor. If a discourse of equality truly emanated throughout the South, then all slaves would have been free, not just those who could work or those who were connected to wage-earning freedpeople. But this was clearly not the case; disabled slaves were left in the plantation South. In an 1867 report submitted to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, military and federal agents documented that "helpless" freed slaves were left on slave plantations and "still found support in their old homes."17 The fact that federal agents throughout the postwar South in county after county, state after state, encountered "helpless" slaves and did not liberate them from the plantations illustrates the extent to which labor was inextricably tied to ideas of freedom. The roughly 25 Bureau agents who compiled reports on conditions in the South for Stanton were not concerned if freedom had reached the far corners of plantations from Northern Virginia to Savannah to even Texas; rather they were only concerned if slaves were cared for and thereby not the responsibility of the federal government. If the lives of these slaves remained similar to their experience prior to the Civil War, it did not matter to the federal government, as long as they had "found support."

That being said, there is no direct evidence articulated by disabled slaves about their continual enslavement during the period of emancipation. Part of the reason that such sources do not exist grows out of the nature and organization of labor force. Able-bodied freed slaves' testimonies have entered into the historical record when they participated in contract negotiations, submitted claims of unfair wages, offered affidavits in court cases, applied for jobs, and filed pension requests. It is within these records that deal on the surface with employment issues that historians have uncovered details that illustrate freed slaves' understanding of emancipation, the value of their labor, and even the war itself. Yet, since disabled slaves were not part of the labor force, there was no bureaucratic mechanism in place that recorded or even sought their testimonies

Despite the silence of their voices within the archives, a record of disabled slaves' experiences can be found in the federal government's counting of a number of disabled freed slaves in a given area. Tabulating the number of disabled people enabled the federal government to demarcate between those who could work and those who could not, but it also notified officials in Washington, D.C. of the number of freed slaves who could qualify for assistance. For example, from September 1, 1866 to September 1, 1867, the offices of the Bureau reported 1400 blind freedmen; 414 "deaf and dumb"; 1,134 "idiotic or imbecile"; 552 "insane"; 251 "club footed." But these numbers were often complicated and distorted. To begin with, these figures represent only the number of disabled people that Bureau agents came in contact with; many more lived in various parts of the post-bellum South but did not register on the Bureau's radar. More to the point, the Bureau did not establish a clear definition of what it meant to be categorized as "insane" or "an imbecile," or even what constituted "blindness" or "deafness." Thus, each Bureau agent made these decisions based on his own impression. In February 1867 in Virginia, for example, a Bureau agent filed a report on the number of "deaf, dumb, and blind" freedmen under his charge. He noted that of the seven freedpeople with disabilities that he had encountered their conditions ranged from "good to bad to very bad"—which illustrates the extent to which the medical reporting of freed slaves' condition was subjective and ambiguous, at best. 18

Given that the labeling of freed slaves' medical status does not provide insight to the actual experiences of disabled people, the value of these reports thus lies in the agents' counting of disabled slaves. In other words, the federal government required Bureau agents in the South to tabulate the number of disabled freed slaves in order to gain an estimate of how much relief needed to be distributed throughout the South. Yet the numbers also serve as an effort on the part of federal agents in Washington and Bureau agents scattered throughout various Southern towns, cities, and plantations to make sense of the chaos and confusion that emancipation engendered. The liberation of four million slaves created a number of questions about the future of the country. Counting the number of disabled slaves provided government officials with a mechanism with which to respond to emancipation. Federal agents did not require the counting of disabled slaves in particular in order to determine medical treatment or develop special facilities that were individually geared toward blind or physically disabled freedmen. Instead, all people whom federal agents marked as dependent and disabled were simply placed in the same asylum. Thus, the counting of disabled slaves had less to do with issues of medical treatment and more to do with how federal officials responded to the crisis of emancipation. Federal asylums were created to house them, and then their medical care was turned over to state authorities.

Additionally, the federal government relied on the presence of disabled slaves rhetorically in order to establish the qualifications for allotting federal relief and aid. In an effort to evaluate those who were worthy of assistance, whether the aid in came in the shape of medical help, rations, or even shelter, Freedmen's Bureau officials consistently stated that only disabled freedpeople could benefit from this help. Rhetorically, the federal government relied on the experience of disabled freed slaves to establish its criteria for assistance. In one of the earliest policies developed in response to the predicament of disabled slaves, Secretary of War E.M. Stanton stated, "Under any circumstances, and in all large societies, even during a normal and peaceful condition of things, there will be found a certain amount of vagrancy and a certain number of indigent poor, disabled, or improvident, to whom it is a custom and a duty to extend relief."19 Constantly adding the caveat that only disabled slaves qualified for federal aid inadvertently silenced the experience of disabled slaves who, unlike their able-bodied contemporaries, were not given an opportunity to showcase their willingness to work or even to express their desire to be part of the rebuilding of the nation. Part of the reason for this silence is the nature and organization of labor force. Able-bodied freed slaves' testimonies have entered into the historical record when they participated in contract negotiations, submitted claims of unfair wages, offered affidavits in court cases, applied for jobs, and filed pension requests. It is within these records that deal on the surface with employment issues that historians have uncovered details that illustrate freed slaves' desire to be active agents in the reconstruction of the South. Yet, since disabled slaves were not part of the labor force, there was no bureaucratic mechanism in place that recorded or even sought their testimonies and their willingness to aid in the rebuilding of the nation.

Furthermore, while casting disabled slaves as legitimate recipients of aid did provide these freed slaves with some form of guaranteed help, it also further solidified the divide between those who could work and those who could not. Since freedom depended largely upon one's ability to work, casting disabled freed slaves as recipients of aid not only prevented them from having the opportunity to prove what they could do, it also imposed a certain prohibition on their movement that evoked a sentiment similar to chattel slavery. In the outskirts of Washington, D.C., for instance, federal inspectors "found a number of decrepit and disabled persons" living in a village for dependent freed slaves established by the Union Army. The inspectors noted that "no labor is required of the residents at the Village, beyond keeping themselves and their houses clean."20 Although the military cared for some disabled slaves, by not allowing them to work, they prevented them from earning adequate wages and thereby limited their mobility during the moment of freedom.

Placing disabled slaves who could not work in asylums followed very much in the tradition established during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the creation of asylums and almshouses became the way local and state officials separated those who could be employed in then nascent market economy from those who could not. Prior to that point—in the eighteenth-century, for example—the care and welfare of disabled people remained the province of their families. Yet the changes engendered by the explosion of the market revolution caused an erosion of agrarian-family-based economies and moved the economy and society toward more industrial, pre-capitalist frameworks that disintegrated the family base. As such, people with physical or mental disabilities and other dependent people began to appear in town squares and city streets, and became, according to some, a nuisance, and most of all a detriment to the then- burgeoning industrial economies, particularly the North's. In an effort to curtail this problem, municipal and state officials literally rounded up dependent disabled people and placed them in asylums, where they would no longer get in the way of the workings of the economy.21 The same spirit that underpinned the development of asylums in the North in the early 19th century served as the basis for the creation of asylums for disabled freedpeople during Reconstruction. In Tennessee and Kentucky in 1866, for example, "deaf, dumb, and blind" freed slaves turned to state authorities and "general charity" for support.22

The problem, however, was that local and state asylums refused admission to freed people and offered assistance only to displaced white disabled people. The Medical Division of the Freedmen's Bureau therefore needed to fill the gap left by municipal and charitable institutions and expand relief networks to assist disabled freed slaves. Although the Bureau established services in order to assist disabled slaves during Reconstruction, disabled freed slaves were not guaranteed assistance. For example, in December of 1868 Union military official Jacob Wisler recommended to Rosswell Waldo, the Bureau agent in charge of disseminating rations and aid in Staunton, Virginia, that "crippled" freedman Benjamin Fraser receive support. In an effort to validate that Fraser was worthy of such aid and not simply dependent on the federal government, Wisler wrote, "I have known [Benjn Fraser Col'd] for some time, he is Crippled, and has a large family depending on him for support, he is a sober industrious man but owing to his condition, his labor is not sufficient to clothe his family and I know them to be in a suffering condition. If you have any power to help any, I know him to be entitled to some aid, and hope you will give it your early attension, he has four small Children."23

Disabled freed slaves turned to the federal government mostly for two reasons: the need for family or individual support. First, much like the above scenario, the wage-earning male in charge of the family was in a position whereby he could no longer work due to his disability, and the family approached the government for aid. Second, a disabled freed slave who did not have an entire family to support might have sought aid for himself or, in some cases, his spouse. In this scenario, the disabled person, who was typically elderly, would want to enroll in a local asylum or hospital established by the federal government. Amelia Steward and her husband Lloyd fell into this category. In June of 1867, Amelia penned a letter to O.O. Howard, often noted as the "Christian General," requesting clothes and rations. "I present myself to you in behalf of my Husband who is a cripple for life," she wrote. "If you choose you can send a man to see to the correctness of my story." And the government did, in fact, send an agent who validated Steward's predicament and ultimately admitted both Amelia and her husband to the "Old Folks Home" in Washington, D.C.24

Despite the fact that the Bureau established networks of relief and created asylums for disabled freed slaves, the Medical Division often lacked the necessary manpower, resources, and money to effectively operate From their creation in 1865 to their demise in 1870, superintendents in charge of these almshouses consistently wrote to federal officials in Washington, D.C., demanding additional support. Yet the federal government often did not comply. Whether requests got lost in the bureaucratic structure of the Bureau or the government simply lacked the necessary manpower, the Bureau could not adequately address the increasing demand for medical support. For example, in a report submitted to the Superintendent of Plantations on his recent visit to "Old Hickory" Plantation in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, the Treasury Department Inspector of Plantations wrote, "The Doctor has not been there…he [the doctor] complains the medicines that were ordered to be sent up the Special Agent, Hon. B. F. Flanders, have not arrived; the poor creatures, are in a truly destitute condition—no one to care for them—the Agent has been gone over a month, having been ordered to join his regiment."25

Suffering from inadequate resources, asylum officials turned to patients of the Freedmen's asylums for support. Similar to many Northern almshouses, where patients performed menial tasks in order to learn basic skills that would enable them, according to the architects of these institutions, to be better prepared to join the labor force, the asylum staff assigned disabled freedpeople jobs. The Freedmen's Bureau's motivation, however, was not for them to join the black labor force; in fact, their employment in the asylums was necessary for the operation of the establishments. From cultivating vegetable gardens to laundering clothes to building additional facilities, the Freedmen's Bureau depended on the labor of disabled slaves in order to run the asylums.26

While the Freedmen's asylums were certainly in a state of disarray, the worse predicament came when Freedmen's Bureau officials refused even to establish a hospital for disabled people due to the expense of maintaining such an institution. In Texas in 1866, for example, a Bureau agent explained to federal officials that "our object has been to prevent the necessity of establishing hospitals, and, at the same time, prevent suffering, by encouraging the planter to care for the sick and worn-out material, many of whom have rendered a lifetime of service, and are entitled to consideration."27 While such a proposition seems logical, as the goal of Bureau agents was to simply provide temporary relief in the rebuilding of the South and to help freed slaves as they transitioned from slavery to freedom, the problem lies in the questions it raises for disabled slaves. Setting up an agreement that planters should negotiate contracts, either formally or informally, that they be responsible for shouldering part of medical expenses provided able-bodied freed slaves with a benefit that would assist them as free laborers.28 However, placing control, power, and authority back in the hands of former masters left disabled slaves in a precarious position. Not establishing a hospital or asylum for disabled slaves to live in during Reconstruction and instead asking them to return to their masters because they had provided a "lifetime of service" indirectly placed them back into a position that more closely resembled chattel slavery than freedom. A beleaguered, albeit makeshift, hospital, as poorly or ineffectively run as it might have been, would have at least marked a change in a disabled slave's life and helped her or him come closer experiencing freedom than being returned to the plantation and placed under the supervision of former slaveholders ever could.

The experience of disabled slaves challenges our understanding of freedom. Forced to remain in slavery during emancipation and then placed against their will in makeshift almshouses and asylums, which often depended upon their labor, disabled slaves' experiences during Reconstruction, a period of great political promise and opportunity, were limited and dismal. Disabled freed slaves were, in many ways, placed from one institution to the next. They did not participate in the exciting campaigns for suffrage or even attend the local schools where reading and writing were taught; instead they were disregarded because they were perceived as unable to work. Their experience powerfully reveals how labor fundamentally determined the course of one's emancipation. If freed slaves possessed the potential and/or ability to join the labor force, then the federal government helped to facilitate their transition from slavery to freedom. If one could not work, then one remained in plantation slavery. Even when masters or Bureau agents removed disabled slaves from plantation slavery, disabled slaves still lacked the opportunity to decide the course of their future—as they remained outside of the labor force. Thus, the experience of disabled slaves reveals the extent to which labor defined freedom. Freedom was not just the absence of slavery, but rather the meaning of freedom was imbued with an obligation to work.

Jim Downs is an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College. His work on the history of medicine, race, and emancipation has appeared in Prologue, History Today, and in Battle Scars (Oxford University Press, 2006), an anthology edited by Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber. He is currently at work on a manuscript, tentatively titled, Sick from Freedom: The Unexpected Consequences of the American Civil War. His other books include Why We Write and Taking Back the Academy! He earned his BA from the University of Pennsylvania, and his PhD from Columbia University.


  1. I am grateful to Jennifer Fronc and Audra Jennings for reading an earlier draft of this essay and offering incisive suggestions. For antebellum discussions of the poor, see Michael Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (NY: Basic Books, 1996).
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  2. For antebellum discussions of the poor, see Michael Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (NY: Basic Books, 1996).
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  3. For example, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002); Julie Saville, Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860-1870 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for Ye: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1997).
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  4. By disabled, I am referring primarily to those slaves who were physically handicapped prior to the war. This essay explores what happened to the disabled after the war ended and the slave plantation system collapsed. I do not examine, therefore, the many cases of freed slaves who became disabled because of their participation in the military campaigns.
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  5. Children were free because they had the potential to work. More to the point, the whole system of education that developed during Reconstruction could simply be viewed as an effort to train young freed slaves with the tools to become effective workers.
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  6. See Howard White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970), 74-5
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  7. In the early part of the 20th century, historians first described freed slaves during Reconstruction as dependent, childlike, and indolent. This interpretation, which began with William Archibald Dunning's book, Reconstruction, Political & Economic, 1865-1877, continued when Dunning then trained a number of graduate students at Columbia University, who adopted a similar interpretation of freed slaves in their studies of Reconstruction politics. This historiographical turn became known as the Dunning School. This portrayal dominated the historical literature until the emergence of work by scholars, inspired by the civil rights movement, who found compelling and persuasive evidence of how freed slaves actively and independently worked in the rebuilding of the nation. For an early twentieth century interpretation of former slaves, see William Archibald Dunning, Reconstruction, Political & Economic, 1865-1877 (NY: Harper, 1907).
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  8. Maria Holmes to Lt. Merrill, Richmond, VA, 13 April 1866, endorsements especially; and W.B. Armstrong, 25 April 1866, VA Richmond, 4239 B51, A8158, Freedmen and Southern Society Project., University of Maryland.
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  9. See, for example, my article on this topic. Jim Downs, "The Other Side of Freedom: Destitution, Disease, and Dependency among Freedwomen and Their Children after the Civil War," in Battle Scars, eds, Clinton and Silber (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 78-103.
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  10. Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (New York: Vintage, 2005), 82.
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  11. Memorandum, March 1, 1865, in James A. and Family Gillespie Papers, Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Louisiana State University; William [Shields] to Doctor [William N. Mercer], November 8, 1869, in Mercer Papers, Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Louisiana State University, as quoted in Michael Wayne, The Reshaping of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860-1880 (Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 115.
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  12. Memorandum, March 1, 1865, in Gillespie Papers[Please give the full name and location of these papers]; William [Shields] to Doctor [William N. Mercer], November 8, 1869, in Mercer Papers, Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Louisiana State University, as quoted in Michael Wayne, The Reshaping of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860-1880 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 115.
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  13. Ira Berlin, Freedom: A Documentary History [Please provide the full citation here, including page numbers].
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  14. See Willie Lee Rose, The Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
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  15. Even within the Republican Party, the champions of freed slaves, there were debates about how to handle the question of black emancipation, which caused a split within the party. While Radical Republicans viewed the Reconstruction period as a golden opportunity to create a revolution, Moderate members of the party viewed Reconstruction as a set of practical problems that could be individually addressed. See Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (NY: Knopf, 2005), 113.
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  16. W.F. Spurgin to Torrey Turner, 1 September 1865, Local Superintendent for Washington and Georgetown Correspondence, Letters Sent Vol 1 (77) July 15, 1865 to September 10, 1867, M1902, Roll 13, RG105, National Archives.
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  17. Laws in Relation to Freedmen, U.S. Sen. 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Senate Executive Doc. No. 6, 5.
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  18. Report of Disabled Freedmen in the 9th District, February 25, 1867, Valley of the Shadow Project, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/ (accessed June 22, 2008), (hereafter Valley of the Shadow Project).
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  19. E.M. Stanton, 30 June 1863, Office of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, [Please provide the complete citation for this source].
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  20. "Two Army Inspectors to the Inspector General," 30 July 1864, Washington, DC, as quoted in Berlin, et al, Freedom: Series I, Volume II, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 338.
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  21. See, for example, David Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the Early Republic (Boston: Little Brown, 1971).
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  22. Laws in Relation to Freedmen, U.S. Sen. 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., Senate Executive Doc. No. 6, 135.
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  23. Jacob H. Wissler to Roswell Waldo, December 8, 1868, Freedmen's Bureau Records, Valley of the Shadow Project.
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  24. Freedmen's Village, VA 24 July 1867. H.H. Howard, Superintendent of of Freedmen's Village. "Home for the Aged and Infirm" at Freedmen's Village, VA. By Order of Bt. Brig, Genl H.H. Howard, Freedpeople and Southern Society Project, University of Maryland.
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  25. Berlin, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, Series I, Volume III, 463.
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  26. Lt. Col. Elias Green to Brig. Genl. M.C. Meigs, 9 January 1864, Consolidated Correspondence File, Bureau of Emancipation, Ser. 225. RG 92 [Y-155]; Also see, Hogan to Fleming, 22 March 1866, New Berne, North Carolina, Letters Received, RG105, e. 2788, (Scrapbook of Letters Received), National Archives.
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  27. Laws in Relation to Freedmen, U.S. Sen. 39th Congress, 2nd Sess. Senate Executive Doc. No. 6.
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  28. Throughout Reconstruction era, former slaveholders, freedpeople, and government agents needed to establish how the system of free labor would work in the postwar South. As a result, everything from labor contracts to marriage ceremonies to building schools needed to reorganized and restructured. Medical issues remained one of the most contested claims, as the federal government failed to provide adequate assistance and planters felt that it was no longer their responsibility to care for freed slaves in a free labor economy. Despite the fact that the government lacked the means to provide adequate care, federal agents were nevertheless invested in freedpeople's labor, so they supported freedpeople's medical needs. Similarly, planters, while obdurate and unwilling to provide freed slaves with medical help, relied on their labor for agricultural production and would negotiate contracts with freedpeople that included some support. Disabled freedpeople, however, were left entirely removed from this dynamic, as both government agents and planters did not view their labor as critical.
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