“Who Got Bloody?”: The Cultural Meanings of Blood during the Civil War and Reconstruction

  • James Downs


Blood still stains the report that a federal doctor in Charleston, South Carolina sent to officials in Washington, DC, about the outbreak of smallpox in the winter of 1865. Smallpox, he reported, had infected 1568 freed people throughout the state from Orangeburg to the Sea Islands. The bloodstain on the report remains one of the few visual markers that illustrates the suffering and illness that the war engendered for newly emancipated slaves.


Black People Cold Blood Cultural Narrative African American Experience Abolitionist Movement 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    This practice of creating hospitals, asylums, and almshouses in order to develop a labor force developed in the late eighteenth century in many American cities. See David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little Brown, 1971).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 6.
    “Proportion of Mulattoes in the Negro Population of the U.S.,” African Methodist Episcopal Church Review 29.2 (October 1912). Patricia Morton, “From Invisible Man to ‘New People’: The Recent Discovery of American Mulattoes,” Phylon 46.2 (2nd Qtr, 1985), 106–22. Martha Hodes, “Fractions and Fictions in the United States Census of 1890,” in Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Ann Stoler (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2006), 240–70. J. L. Hochschild and B. M. Powell, “Racial Reorganization and the United States Census 1850–1930: Mulattoes, Half-Breeds, Mixed Parentage, Hindoos, and the Mexican Race,” Studies in American Political Development 22.1 (2008), 59–96. Jim Downs, “Her Life, My Past: Rosina Downs and the Proliferation of Racial Categories after the American Civil War,” in Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South, ed. Jason Phillips (Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 156–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 7.
    Edward L. Pierce to Hon. Salmon P. Chase, 3 February 1862, vol. 19, no. 72a, Port Royal Correspondence, 5th Agency, RG 366 (Q-8), as quoted in Berlin et al., Freedom: Series I, Volume III, The Wartime Genesis of Freed Labor: The Lower South (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 133, 149.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    On both the historical and contemporary ways that Americans have used the terms blood and race interchangeably, see Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2012), 52–70.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    For more on the history of the US Sanitary Commission, see Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    Henry Janes, MD, letter to editor of Baltimore Sun (27 October 1899), in vol. 6, “Gettysburg News Clippings,” GNMP Library, as quoted in Gregory A. Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg, the Aftermath of a Battle (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1995), 164.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Sophronia E. Bucklin, In Hospital and Camp: A Woman’s Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War (Philadelphia, PA: John E. Potter and Co., 1869), 187–8, as quoted in Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land, 20.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Thomas T. Ellis, Diary of Thomas T. Ellis, 1862?, in Leaves from the Diary of an Army Surgeon: or, Incidents of Field, Camp, and Hospital Life (New York: John Bradburn, 1863), 312.Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2009).Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 51.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Alfred L. Castleman, The Army of the Potomac. Behind the Scenes. A Diary of Unwritten History; From the Organization of the Army to the Close of the Campaign in Virginia, about the first day of January, 1863 (Milwaukee: Strickland & Co., 1863), 203.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    Captain Carl Adolf Lamberg to Lieut. Col. T. H. Harris, 27 April 1864, vol. 32, Union Battle Reports, ser. 729, War Records Office, RG 94 {HH-5}. Endorsements as quoted in Berlin et al., Freedom, Series II: The Black Military Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1982), 540–1.Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    Edward L. Pierce to Hon. Salmon P. Chase, 3 February 1862, vol. 19, #72a, Port Royal Correspondence, 5th Agency, RG 366 {Q-8}, as quoted in Berlin et al., Freedom: Series I, Volume III, The Wartime Genesis of Freed Labor: The Lower South (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 133, 149.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Geoffrey Sanborn, “Mother’s Milk: Frances Harper and the Circulation of Blood,” English Literary History 72.3 (Fall 2005), 694–5. Also, Thomas Jefferson notes that the blush illustrates the differences between the races. He writes, “Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?” Thomas Jefferson, Notes On the State of Virginia (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Ill edition, 2011), 165–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 28.
    Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845); reprint, edited with an introduction by David W. Blight (Boston: Bedford Books, 1993), 15–16.Google Scholar
  17. 32.
    J. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead,” Civil War History 57.4 (2011), 306–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 33.
    For more on this debate, see Jim Downs, “Color Blindness in the Demographic Death Toll of the Civil War,” 13 April 2012, OUP Blog; Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll,” New York Times, 2 April 2012.Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825–1911 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 51.Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    Liberator, 8 March 1861, as quoted in Frances Smith Foster (ed.), A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Reader (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993), 93–4.Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    James Madison Bell, “Through Tennyson the Poet King from ‘A Poem Entitled The Day and the War,’” in The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry, ed. Richard Marius (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 193.Google Scholar
  22. 38.
    Susie King Taylor, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman’s Civil War Memoir (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 75–6.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© James Downs 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • James Downs

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations