“As Though They Had Not Been Slaves”: Federal Surgeons and Black Bodies in Reconstructed America

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:50 PM
Salon B (Hilton Atlanta)
Dale Kretz, Washington University in St. Louis
"The Visible Hand" uses the pension records of black Civil War veterans as a way into thinking about the relationship between the African-American body and the state.  Years after their service, disabled veterans applied for support from the U.S. Pension Bureau.  To receive a monthly stipend they had to appear before a board of surgeons deputized by the federal government.  The board would evaluate the alleged disabilities of the applicants and rate them according to their incapacity to perform hard manual labor.  Before a new pension law in 1890, black veterans would have to prove that their disability was incurred in service and not in slavery—a task often requiring an incredible reworking of personal narratives of suffering, pitting testimonies of veterans against their comrades, neighbors, and even former fellow slaves.   

My paper calls into question the scholarly assumption that emancipation ended personal regimes of bodily control and ushered in an age of impersonal mechanisms of economic coercion: “from lash to cash,” as formulated by historian Ira Berlin.  It will argue that the free market in wage labor that came roaring out of the North’s victory in the Civil War was every bit as carefully calibrated to manage black bodily suffering as were the old technologies of enslavement.  Using the intimate records of the black pensioners, my paper will demonstrate how African Americans negotiated the evolution from the calibrations of slavery to maximize production to the calibrations of the state to underwrite the fiction of the free market in wage labor.