Meet the U.S. Army’s First Black Surgeon: Alexander Augusta

Just past the Outdated Put up Chapel entrance gate at Arlington Nationwide Cemetery in Arlington, Va., stands an obelisk gravestone bearing an in depth but spartan inscription:

Commissioned surgeon of coloured volunteers, April 4, 1863, with rank of Main. Commissioned regimental surgeon of the 7, Regiment U.S. Coloured Troops, October 2, 1863. Brevetted Lieutenant Colonel U.S. Volunteers, March 13, 1865, “For Devoted and Meritorious Providers.”

Beneath these spectacular credentials—chiseled in daring letters—is the title AUGUSTA. To know the life, instances, and army profession of the person buried right here is to higher perceive why Individuals fought a civil battle.

Daniel Payne, who would turn out to be president of Wilburforce College in Ohio, taught Augusta to learn. The longer term surgeon quickly devoured any e-book he might get his palms on. (Library of Congress)

Alexander Thomas Augusta was born in 1825 to so-called “free individuals of coloration” in Norfolk, Va. A naturally clever boy, he was curious concerning the world, hungry for information and enchancment, and, most vital, pushed by an unstoppable spirit.

However Augusta lived in an age of slavery and slave uprisings. He was six years outdated when Nat Turner staged his violent rebel in opposition to slaveowners in close by Southampton County, killing as much as 65 folks, 51 of whom have been White. From then on, suspicion and mistrust reigned over the Black neighborhood—free and enslaved.

Whites did all the things of their energy to maintain Blacks from organizing, together with efforts to carry them again intellectually. To show an individual of coloration find out how to learn, for instance, was a critical offense and, from the slaveholding perspective, an imminent risk to life and property.

Augusta, nevertheless, vigorously pursued his ambitions; one in all them was studying. Whereas in his late teenagers, he secretly realized to take action with the assistance of Daniel Payne, who later grew to become each a bishop within the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the president of Ohio’s Wilberforce College.

Augusta learn something he might discover. And though he was omnivorous when it got here to material, he however had a favourite subject—drugs.

More and more nicely learn, Augusta set out for Baltimore, Md., in 1847. Right here, he settled down briefly, and at all times with an eye fixed towards doing greater than studying. What he had in thoughts was nearly out of the query for a Black man in mid–nineteenth century America.

Shortly after touchdown in Baltimore, Augusta moved to Philadelphia with hopes of finding out drugs on the College of Pennsylvania. Sadly, in his try at admission, he met together with his first style of the institutionalized prejudice that was rapidly changing into a most cancers to the Union.

Whereas pursuing his medical schooling at Trinity School in Toronto, Canada, Augusta stuffed his “spare time” pulling tooth, making use of leeches, and grinding up drugs. When did he sleep? (The Provincial Freedman)

In line with some sources, the college denied his software as a result of he was “inadequately” ready for the curriculum. The truth of circumstances, nevertheless, skews extra within the path of pores and skin coloration and the unsavory notion of a Black man transcending the boundaries of his designated place in society.

However Augusta would have none of it, and, following a quick stint of tutelage below the steerage of a professor on the college, returned to Baltimore, married, and round 1850, went to California, the place he labored as a barber within the midst of the booming Gold Rush. By most accounts, Augusta was saving cash to finance his subsequent transfer, which took him and his spouse to Toronto, Canada.

Shortly after his arrival, Augusta enrolled as a medical scholar on the College of Toronto’s Trinity School. For the subsequent six years, he endured the pains of medical faculty, in the meantime working aspect jobs as a chemist and pharmacist, promoting, as one commercial introduced, “Patent Medicines, Perfumery, Dye Stuffs, and many others.,” in addition to companies reminiscent of tooth extraction, the filling of prescriptions, and the applying of leeches.

Lastly, in 1856, Augusta completed a feat that many African Individuals in his day would by no means have entertained, not to mention efficiently accomplished: He graduated from Trinity School with a bachelor of medication. In line with the school’s president, John McCaul, he was “one in all [my] most sensible college students.”

Not surprisingly, Augusta loved Toronto, which was recognized for its racial tolerance. Life there was regular. He might excel with out swimming in opposition to the currents of racial bigotry. After his commencement, he opened a medical apply and had a good quantity of White sufferers. He additionally devoted huge vitality to activism inside the native Black neighborhood.

Along with his work as a doctor, Augusta cultivated a conspicuously public presence as a champion of racial equality. He helped draft petitions in opposition to anti-Black candidates for the Canadian parliament, organized occasions that includes abolitionist audio system, and served because the president of the Provincial Affiliation for the Training and Elevation of the Colored Folks of Canada.

However the security and prosperity he present in his new residence sadly didn’t outline the world over, and it undoubtedly didn’t match circumstances for Blacks in his place of birth, the place the election of President Abraham Lincoln had despatched the nation spiraling on a path to civil battle.

Over the subsequent few years, Augusta remained in Toronto studying headlines that dissolved from one seemingly earth-moving occasion to a different: the Insurgent bombardment of Fort Sumter; the Battle of Antietam; and, in 1863, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

An engraving of Toronto in 1854. The thriving port town on Lake Ontario had been a racial melting pot since the French established a trading post at the location in the 1750s. (Granger, NYC)
An engraving of Toronto in 1854. The thriving port city on Lake Ontario had been a racial melting pot for the reason that French established a buying and selling publish on the location within the 1750s. (Granger, NYC)

The latter was a turning level for 1000’s of African Individuals, together with Augusta, who noticed the proclamation as a beacon of hope and a name to motion. Enforced as of January 1, 1863, Lincoln’s proclamation freed the slaves and allowed for the enlistment of Black troopers within the Union Military. As a physician, Augusta’s information and expertise have been of nice worth to the battle effort, and he instantly drafted a letter to the president providing his companies:

I encourage depart to use to you for an appointment as surgeon to among the colored regiments, or as doctor to among the depots of ‘freedmen.’ I used to be compelled to depart my native nation, and are available to this on account of prejudice in opposition to color, for the aim of acquiring a information of my occupation; and having completed that object, at one of many precept academic establishments of this province, I’m now ready to apply it, and want to be able the place I may be of use to my race.

Lincoln and Secretary of Battle Edwin M. Stanton forwarded Augusta’s correspondence to the Military Medical Board in Washington, D.C., which summarily rejected him for a number of causes—his pores and skin coloration foremost amongst them. Nonetheless, Augusta had by no means cowed to prejudice—whether or not it was encountered in studying find out how to learn, going to medical faculty, or serving his native nation within the battle for the Union and emancipation.

So, Augusta left Toronto for Washington, the place he instantly petitioned the board. “I’ve come close to a thousand miles at nice expense and sacrifice,” he informed them, “hoping to be of some use to the nation and to my race at this eventful interval.”

This straightforward assertion moved the board to offer the 38-year-old doctor an opportunity on the qualifying exams. Augusta handed with flying colours and obtained each an appointment as the US Military’s first Black surgeon and a fee as a significant, making him the very best rating African American officer within the U.S. army.

Augusta seems to be sharp in his U.S. Military surgeon’s uniform. Inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation, he provided his companies to the Union and wouldn’t be denied the chance. (Oblate Sisters of Windfall Archives, Baltimore, Md.)

Two days later, Augusta created a stir in Washington at a reception celebrating the primary anniversary of the liberating of the slaves within the Union capital. As a reporter with the Night Star noticed, “The looks of a coloured man within the room carrying the gold depart epaulettes of a Main, was…the event of a lot applause and gratulation with the meeting.”

However not everybody was impressed. Some have been disgusted by the sight of a “coloured officer.” In Might 1863, a crowd of Whites assaulted Augusta as he took his seat on a prepare at Baltimore’s President Avenue depot—one of many males cursing him earlier than ripping the epaulettes from his uniform. Livid, Augusta reported the incident to the provost marshal, whose males managed to arrest a handful of the perpetrators.

Different comparable indignities adopted, all of them fixed reminders of the nation’s systemic racism. All through the next yr, Augusta encountered quite a few situations of discrimination, insubordination from White enlisted males, and even acts of disdain on the a part of civilians; maybe probably the most humiliating of them occurring in 1864.

In February, Augusta was on “indifferent service” from his authentic unit, the seventh Regiment of U.S. Coloured Troops, working as senior surgeon at Camp Stanton in Maryland. On February 1, he needed to be in close by Washington to offer testimony in a court-martial concerning the homicide of a Black man. That morning, he left his residence in a torrential downpour, and hoping to stay dry, hailed a streetcar.

As Augusta later recalled: “[W]hen I tried to enter, the conductor pulled me again and knowledgeable me that I need to experience on the entrance because it was in opposition to the principles for coloured individuals to experience inside. I informed him I might not experience on the entrance, and he mentioned I shouldn’t experience in any respect. He then ejected me from the platform, and on the similar time gave orders to the driving force to go on. I’ve due to this fact been compelled to stroll the space within the mud and rain, and have additionally been delayed in my attendance upon the court docket.”

The incident garnered widespread consideration, particularly with abolitionist lawmakers reminiscent of Charles Sumner, who addressed the matter throughout a Senate ground debate.

The importance of those occasions, nevertheless, isn’t merely in what they mentioned about Augusta’s power of character, but in addition what they revealed about the US on the shut of the battle.

Success tales like Augusta’s have been largely the results of an ideal storm of human qualities—penetrating intelligence, fearlessness and dedication, persistence, and a wholesome sense of righteous indignation.

Officers of the 7th USCT, Augusta’s first regiment, in an image reportedly taken in Jacksonville, Fla. A young Black refugee hands a pipe to one officer from the doorway of a winter shelter. (Florida Memory)
Officers of the seventh USCT, Augusta’s first regiment, in a picture reportedly taken in Jacksonville, Fla. A younger Black refugee palms a pipe to at least one officer from the doorway of a winter shelter. (Florida Reminiscence)

Augusta shouldn’t have needed to battle so laborious to attain what he did, and that spoke volumes concerning the racial issues that finally went unaddressed, even within the wake of a battle that killed greater than 600,000 folks.

After Augusta mustered out a breveted lieutenant colonel in 1866, he continued to battle for his personal betterment and that of 1000’s of different African Individuals. In September 1868, he joined the college of Howard College’s Medical Faculty, changing into the primary Black professor of medication in U.S. historical past. Within the coming years, he additionally continued in non-public apply, based the nation’s first African American medical society, and helped lay the muse for what would ultimately turn out to be the Nationwide Medical Affiliation.

He died in December 1890 at age 65, his gravestone at Arlington bearing mere traces of the total life he lived.

Michael Williams is a Maryland-based author and historian. He’s at present engaged on a e-book concerning the untold story of Insurgent Baltimore, Normal Lew Wallace, and a detective who saved the Union.


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