In Honor of Black History Month: Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta, First Black Civil War Surgeon

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Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta faced many challenges as the first black surgeon commissioned into the Union Army during the Civil War. He was eventually recognized for his merits and was the first black soldier of officer rank to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Although he was appointed senior surgeon at Camp Stanton in Maryland in February 1864, during the Civil War, Augusta still faced racism from fellow doctors he worked with to help soldiers during the war, according to Dr. Heather Butts, a Harvard alumnus who studied public health. Butts is the director of Honors College at Long Island University, Brookville, New York, and authored the book “African American Medicine in Washington, DC: Healing the Capital during the Civil War Era,” which describes the surgeon’s life.

Image of Alexander Thomas Augusta
(Wikipedia)

“Some of the white surgeons who reported to Augusta wrote to President Lincoln informing him of their displeasure at having to report to Augusta. They requested ‘very respectfully but sincerely’ that this ‘unexpected, unusual relationship and most disagreeable in which we have been placed ‘ come to an end.” Their letter also stated:

“‘But we cannot … willfully compromise what we consider … appropriate self-respect, nor do we think that the interests of the country or the colored race can demand it of us. ‘ Dr. Augusta has been transferred out of Camp Stanton,” Dr. Butts wrote in a statement to Fox News.

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According to a report published in the National Medical Association, Dr. Augusta was born as a free man in 1825, in Norfolk, Virginia. He learned to read in secret and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he studied medicine with tutors because it was against the law to teach people of color, according to the article.

The article recounted how Augusta worked with Dr. William Gibson at the University of Pennsylvania, but was denied admission to the university’s medical school. He eventually went to Canada, where he received his medical degree, with full honors, from Trinity Medical College, University of Toronto in 1856.

Augusta returned to the United States and wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln asking to be appointed surgeon to one of the black regiments being trained by the Union Army. He earned a commission as a surgeon in the Union Army in 1863, according to the article.

Butts described how this preeminent surgeon faced and triumphed over bigotry. “Through it all, he faced this adversity in a way that allowed him to give back to his patients and to society,” Dr. Butts told Fox News.

A Bureau agent stands between a group of whites and a group of freedmen.  Harper's Weekly, July 25, 1868.

A Bureau agent stands between a group of whites and a group of freedmen. Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.
(Wikipedia)

While traveling to testify at a court-martial on February 1, 1864, Augusta was delayed due to a racially charged incident at a streetcar incident. According to Butts, Augusta tried to get into the cart but was told he had to get in the front of the car because it was against the rules for people of color to get inside. The surgeon was kicked out of the cart when he refused to get out of the car and had to walk to the courthouse, where he was late for the hearing.

Sumner, c.  1860 United States Senator from Massachusetts

Sumner, c. 1860 United States Senator from Massachusetts
(Wikipedia)

The incident caught the attention of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts who helped push a resolution through Congress that resulted in the desegregation of streetcars in Washington, D.C. in the 1860s.

Dr. Augusta not only helped soldiers heal on the front lines during the Civil War, but also helped pave the way for black Americans to pursue careers in the medical field. In 1868, Augusta was the first African American to be appointed to the faculty of Howard University and the first to a medical school in the United States.

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“I hope there will be many more stories, books, and articles about Dr. Augusta and the other brave African-American surgeons who served in the war, and that their stories and legacy will hold sway. attention they so deserve,” Dr. Butts told Fox News.

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