Most Americans are now familiar with the contribution of nearly 300,000 black soldiers and sailors to the Union cause during the U.S. Civil War. Less well known is the role of a dedicated group of black doctors and nurses in uniform who worked diligently to save lives and fight disease. In 2006, retired physician Robert G. Slawson who is now with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, wrote Prologue to Change: African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era to introduce those men and women to the public. What follows is an introduction to these medical professionals based on his research.
The involvement of African Americans in medicine in the Civil War era is an untold chapter in our history. Up to that time most practitioners had learned medicine by apprenticeship but this began to change in the early Nineteenth Century. James McCune Smith was the first African American to obtain a medical degree when, in 1837, he was graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. In 1847 David James Peck was the first to receive a medical degree in the United States. By the end of the Civil War at least 22 African Americans had obtained degrees and were practicing medicine. At least twelve of these physicians served with the Union Army.
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