Determined To Serve: Black Doctors In The Civil War

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War when the nation was divided over the issue of slavery.

During that time, many freed blacks enlisted in the Union Army, including several African American doctors.

Little is known about these brave men, but there is a move to change that. Dr. Robert Slawson spent eight years as a doctor in the Army and 28 years teaching medicine at the University of Maryland. He is particularly interested in medical history, mainly the contributions that African Americans have made.

After completing a research project on medical education prior to the Civil War, Slawson was assured from all of his readings that there were no African Americans in formal medical education in the United States. But after further study, he found that several blacks had indeed attended and successfully completed medical school. A handful had even served as doctors during the Civil War.

He wrote about his findings in his book, Prologue to Change: African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era.

When President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863, nearly 200,000 blacks joined the Union Army. “Of the physicians we’ve identified serving with the Army, three of them were commissioned officers “The other nine were contract surgeons.”

Three men were commissioned officers while the remaining nine served as acting assistant surgeons (contract physicians).  Alexander Thomas Augusta from Norfolk, Virginia,  was unable to obtain admittance to a United States medical school so he went to Ontario, Canada.  There he was successful in gaining admittance to Trinity College, Ontario University.  In 1860 he became the first person of African ancestry to receive a medical degree in Canada.  He received his commission as a surgeon (with the rank of major) in April 1863 in the 7th United States Colored Infantry (known popularly by the initials, USCT, for U.S. Colored Troops).  Augusta was  the first African American to obtain this rank in the U. S. Army.  At the end of the war he was brevetted to lieutenant colonel, a promotion for meritorious service.  When Howard Medical College opened in 1868, he was the only African American on its original faculty.  Nine years later he left the medical school for private medical practice in Washington, D.C.  Augusta died in 1890 and was the first African American officer to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

John van Surly DeGrasse was an 1849 graduate of Maine Medical College, affiliated with Bowdoin College.   He served as an assistant surgeon (lieutenant) in 35th U.S. Colored Infantry, returning to Massachusetts to practice after the war.  He died there in 1868 at age 43.

David O. MCord, an 1854 graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, was a surgeon (major) in the 63rd U. S. Colored Infantry. He died in Ohio in 1874 where he had been practicing medicine.

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The remaining nine men all served as acting assistant surgeons.  They all served in USCT units or in the contraband hospitals.  The largest of these was the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C. which became Freedman’s Hospital after the Civil War and later Howard Hospital as part of Howard University.   The doctors will be listed alphabetically.

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The first of these, Anderson Ruffin Abbot, was a Canadian and had worked with Dr. Augusta in Canada.  He was appointed an acting assistant surgeon in 1863, prior to obtaining his degree, and worked at the Contraband Hospital in Washington during the war.  He returned to Ontario, Canada, where, to supplement his medical license, he received a medical degree from the Toronto College of Medicine in 1867.  Abbott practiced in Ontario until his death in 1913.

Benjamin A. Boseman, from New York, was graduated from the Maine Medical College in 1864, and served in South Carolina during the Civil War.  After the war ended he remained in South Carolina and  served in that state’s legislature from 1868 until 1873 when he was appointed Postmaster of Charleston, South Carolina. He served in that post until his death in 1883.

It’s an interesting read. It’s not too late to add this book to your list of must reads.


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