The Damaging Effects of Excessive Fatigue Duty
A letter from Surgeon John Rush on the 30th May 1864 to the Superintendent of Tennessee Black Troops, Captain George Mason, reveals some of the causes of illnesses among the 4th U.S. Heavy Artillery. At the time of his inspection, 111 of the 936 men were ill. Rush reports that the 4th H. Arty “being negroes” were made to carry out all the labour, which included loading and unloading steamboats and storing supplies. The combination of “excessive labour and exposure” had “reduced their vitality” to such an extent that they had been hospitalised since.
Rush’s letter provides further evidence that some former slaves who were recruited were in no position physically to carry out the duties required of a soldier. Physicians often would approve fugitive slaves “regardless of health to secure their liberty,” to protect them from recapture by “vengeful masters and slave catchers.” But the good intentions of these physicians often brought with them fatal consequences, as men weakened from the hardship of slave life succumbed quickly to the various contagious diseases within the crowded contraband camps.
Mistaken beliefs about the superior physiological resistance of black men often saw them replacing white troops in particularly unhealthy areas with equally disastrous consequences. The same erroneous theory accounted also for the disproportionate assignment of black men to arduous fatigue duty, a measure which further weakened and made them more susceptible to contracting life-threatening diseases. As more and more African men became ill, the consequent burden of additional labour imposed on the healthy soldier increasingly took its toll and exacerbated the problem further.
Whereas some black men had specific immunities, others, such as former slaves who had resided solely on plantations, had no resistance to highly contagious diseases such as measles. As the death toll increased, individual officers of abolitionist background began to address the health crisis directly. They concluded that the three main factors contributing to spiralling levels of disease among black soldiers were, “their unbalanced diet, inadequate shelter, and excessive fatigue duty.” Despite these efforts on behalf of their men, they ultimately failed to establish any meaningful changes, and despite occasional improvements, it did little to benefit the general health of black soldiers.
Another factor, which contributed to the high mortality rate, was the attitude of some medical officers toward black soldiers whom were placed in their “care.” Some accused soldiers of feigning illness, just as “masters and overseers had accused slaves of shirking work,” an attitude that undoubtedly led to the deterioration of the condition of many a genuinely ill soldier. Even the quality of care received while in hospital could have a more detrimental than helpful effect on a soldiers condition, with limited knowledge of the aetiology of wartime diseases being a significant factor.