Determined to Serve: Black Doctors in the Civil War

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COLUMBIA, Md. - 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.

Prologue to Change

Retired physician Dr. Robert Slawson is fascinated by two subjects: history and medicine.

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," Slawson told CBN News. "The other nine were contract surgeons."

"The things they were doing as doctors mostly was taking care of disease," he explained. "They would do examination, take care of people with sickness, give medications."

Alexander T. Augusta

Dr. Alexander T. Augusta was a veteran of the American Civil War and the first commissioned black officer in the U.S. Army. He is also the first black officer to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Augusta was born to free parents in Norfolk, Va. He was taught to read by a preacher, something that was illegal and dangerous in the state.

He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but that seemed almost impossible in the 1800s. He applied to the University of Pennsylvania's medical school, but his application was denied.

When he was unable to gain admittance to an American college of medicine because of his race, Augusta travelled to Canada where he enrolled at Toronto's Trinity College.

After six years there he earned a degree in medicine.

"It's hard for me to even imagine the challenges that they had faced," author and health expert Dr. Michelle Gourdine said.

"It had to be magnitudes harder than those of us who are black doctors now went through," she said.
 
Gourdine said that the hardships black medical professionals before her faced serve as a great encouragement and example to her and other African Americans.

"On top of it being a very difficult and challenging subject matter they had to understand, but to do that in an atmosphere where you were considered less than, where you were considered to be second rate, second tier, where you did not have all of the resources that you need in order to succeed and then to be able to achieve any way... " she marveled.

John Van Surly DeGrasse

After returning to the United States in 1862, Augusta wrote a direct appeal to President Lincoln to serve as a surgeon in the Army.

He was finally allowed entrance and earned a commission in the Union Army after many roadblocks.

Slawson said Augusta's time in the Army was difficult both on and off the battlefield. Most black surgeons in the war worked in military hospitals or recruiting stations because many white surgeons refused to serve alongside them or under their command on the battlefield.

"He (Dr. Augusta) had two assistant surgeons at the regiment with him and they were white and they rebelled obviously," Slawson explained. "The senior assistant surgeon said 'It's not right. There's no other white man working for an African black man, and I shouldn't have to do it either.'"
 
Dr. John Van Surly DeGrasse, from Massachusetts, was one exception. He and many of the black doctors in the Civil War were of mixed race.

De Grasse was born June 1825 in New York City. According BlackPast.org, in 1840 at 15 years old DeGrasse enrolled in Oneida Institute in New York.

He later studied medicine at Aubuk College in Paris. De Grasse received his medical degree with honors from the Bowdoin College's Medical School of Maine in Brunswick in May 1849.

He was the second African American to graduate from an American college of medicine.

After volunteering in May 1863, De Grasse received a commission as an assistant surgeon with the 35th United States Colored Infantry. He was one of only three African American doctors to do so.

De Grasse was the only black surgeon to serve in the field with his South Carolina regiment.

Determined to Serve

Little is written in the history books about these African American physicians and their service to the United States of America.

"The powers that be decided that the acceptable physicians were white men, so a lot of the information on African Americans, as well as the early women physicians, people chose not to record it," Slawson said.
 
Slawson said, however, that one thing is clear about these men.

"Anybody who wanted to go into medicine had to be determined that that's what they wanted to do," he said.
 
When the war ended, Augusta went on to serve on the staff at Howard University.

De Grasse returned to his practice in Boston. He received a gold-hilted sword from Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew in appreciation of his service. He died November 25, 1868.

Modern World Forerunners

Slawson often lectures on Black History. He said he is doing what he can to tell the stories of black doctors in the Civil War, each of whom he said deserves a place in history as forerunners of the modern world.

"I thought they were heroes," he said. "These were people who knew what they wanted, went after it and wanted to serve in the best way they could."

"And they were trained physicians and that was the best service they could give," he said. "I don't see a difference."

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Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at Facebook.com/CharleneIsraelCBNNews.