African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era

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Canadian citizen, Anderson Ruffin Abbott in a U.S. Army Uniform, 1863
Photo Image: Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library

 

 

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 19th 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 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. When 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. 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 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.

 

Cortland van Rensselaer Creed graduated from Yale University School of Medicine in 1857. He served with the 30th Connecticut Volunteers (USCT). Creed returned to Connecticut to practice medicine after the Civil War and subsequently became a Justice of the Peace. He died there in 1900.

 

William B. Ellis was an 1858 graduate of Dartmouth Medical College. Little is known about him except that he served as an acting assistant surgeon.

 

Before the Civil War Joseph Dennis Harris, from Virginia, wrote a book supporting colonization for African Americans and went to Haiti to promote that cause. He later decided on medicine as a career and, after one year at the Medical Department of Western Reserve College (now Western Reserve University), he served in Virginia where he stayed after the war. In 1869 Harris was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia but did not win the election.

 

William R. Powell, Jr. was the son of an African American physician in New York City. He spent time in England and said that he had graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in London although no record of this exists. He served at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. After the war he moved to California and, in 1901, he moved to England

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Charles Burleigh Purvis is the best known of this group of men. He was from a prominent abolitionist family in Philadelphia and received his degree in 1865 from the Medical Department of Western Reserve College. He was assigned to the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D. C. in the last months of the Civil War. In 1869 Purvis became the second African American physician on the faculty of Howard Medical College and stayed with that institution for 54 years, at times serving as Chief of Surgery at Howard Hospital.

 

John Rapier, Jr. was from Alabama and Tennessee. He traveled to Haiti and then to Jamaica where he became interested in medicine. He received his medical diploma from the Iowa College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1864. He, too, served at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C., and was still in active service there when he died of “bilious fever” in 1866.

Alpheus W. Tucker from Michigan was graduated from the Iowa College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1865. He served at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C. and stayed in Washington to practice medicine after the war. In 1869 he applied for membership in the District of Columbia Medical Society, with Drs. Augusta and Purvis, but all three were denied membership.

 

Martin Robison Delaney deserves mention here although he did not serve as a physician. He was admitted to Harvard Medical College in 1850 but, because of student unhappiness over matriculation of African American students, was only allowed to stay one year and did not obtain a degree. He previously had apprenticed as a dentist and as a physician so he did practice medicine for some time. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he worked as a recruiter for the USCT in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts. Because of his strong belief that African American soldiers should have African American officers, he sought, and ultimately obtained in March 1865, a commission as major in a USCT infantry unit but the war ended before the unit was fully activated. He was, for a time after the war, an assistant sub-commissioner in South Carolina for the Freedman’s Bureau.

 

Rebecca Lee, the first black woman to receive a medical degree, but did not serve with the U.S. Army during the Civil War although she was active immediately after the war ended. Lee received her medical degree in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College. After the surrender of Richmond, Virginia, to Union troops in April, 1865, she went to the city to work with volunteer agencies at the contraband camp there. She subsequently married a Dr. Crumpler and returned to Boston where she practiced for several years. In 1883 she published a self-help medical book for women (A Book of Medical Discourses).

 

As with the white population, many African Americans served as nursing personnel during the war in both paid and volunteer capacities. The Navy enlisted several African American women as a “first class boy” into the Navy and used them as nurses on hospital ships like the U.S.S. Red Rover. The best known of these women is Ann Bradford Stokes. She was enlisted in the Navy in January 1863 and served until October 1864 as a nurse on the Red Rover. After leaving the Navy she married Gilbert Stokes. In 1890 she applied for a disability pension for her own service and was certified by the Navy as having served on active duty in the Navy for 18 months. She was awarded this pension in 1890 and is the first woman in the United States to receive a pension for her own military service. She was also one of the first African American nurses in the United States Navy.

 

This summary of the African American medical experience during the American Civil War only begins the story. Undoubtedly many whose names are not yet known served in similar capacities at that time. It is hoped that this account will be the stimulus to find and report others who served so that their heroic and trend-setting actions can be celebrated.

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Susie King Taylor, 1902
Courtesy East Carolina University

 

Susie King Taylor’s memoirs are the only known published recollection of the experiences of an African American nurse during the Civil War. In a letter to Taylor, reproduced in her book, Lt. Colonel Trowbridge, commander of the regiment, praises her “unselfish devotion and service through more than three long years of war in which the 33d Regiment bore a conspicuous part in the great conflict for human liberty and the restoration of the Union.”

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The U.S.S. Red Rover, a converted former Confederate paddle steamer became the first U.S. Naval hospital. During the Civil War, nearly 3000 patients were treated onboard

 

U.S.S. Red Rover, Harper’s Weekly, May 9, 1863; U.S.S. Red Rover, 1863 Courtesy National Library of Medicine

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