Thursday, February 18, 2021

Pioneering Black Doctors of the Civil War

Lt. Col. Alexander T. Augusta

Due to pervasive racial discrimination in both the North and the South, occupational choices were limited for African Americans in the mid-Nineteenth Century. A number of professional careers, such as doctors and lawyers, seemed virtually unreachable at the time due to overt and covert prejudice and racial restrictions in education and career training. However, despite many obstacles, a few black men and women, who exhibited amazing perseverance and hard work, made their dreams a reality and helped change American society. The Civil War presented opportunities that helped accelerate progress.

Born in 1825 to free parents in Norfolk, Virginia, Alexander Thomas Augusta as a young man eventually moved to Baltimore, where he worked as a barber, a profession largely held by black men at the time. Soon he became interested in obtaining a medical education. After the prestigious University of Pennsylvania rejected his application, Augusta received private tutoring from a local white doctor. However, Augusta still desired formal training, so he migrated to Toronto, Canada, and gained entrance to Trinity Medical College. There he earned a medical degree in 1856, and began working as a doctor soon thereafter.

With the Emancipation Proclamation officially opening more military opportunities for African Americans, Augusta returned to the United States and expressed his willingness to serve as surgeon for a black regiment. After enduring an extensive examination, Augusta received a commission as major on April 4, 1863. At first assigned to administer physical examinations to new recruits, and treating black refugees in Washington D.C., he eventually received appointment as surgeon of the 7th United States Colored Infantry on October 2, 1863.

Being a black physician and army officer often placed Augusta in dangerous and trying situations. Once he was physically attacked in Baltimore merely for wearing his officer’s uniform. On another occasion a white doctor refused to work under his supervision. And in Washington D.C., he was the victim of discrimination while riding public transportation. Unwilling to endure such treatment silently, Augusta officially protested the bigoted act to military authorities.

Augusta eventually became the highest ranking (lieutenant colonel) African American soldier during the Civil War. After the war, he worked with the Freedman’s Bureau, started a private practice, and taught at Howard University’s medical school.  Lt. Col. Augusta died on December 21, 1890, and received a military burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott
In addition to Augusta, at least two other black men served in the Civil War as commissioned surgeons: John van Surley DeGrasse and David O. McCord. Several, like Anderson Ruffin Abbott, Benjamin Boseman, Courtland van Rensselear Creed, and William Ellis, among others, worked as assistant and or contract surgeons healing both soldiers and refugees displaced by the war. Their inspiring and trailblazing efforts created countless opportunities that helped benefit future generations.  


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