A cartoon illustration of Dr. Alexander Augusta (a formally dressed Black man with a handlebar mustache) surrounded by three hexagons containing illustrations of the United States flag, a red cross representing health-care, and a raised fist (a symbol of resistance and unity).

Black Health-Care Heroes of the Civil War: Dr. Alexander Augusta

The latest learning pathway from the Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Science Education (RDEISE) project, “Racism and the History of Science,” launched this February. Check out pathways "How Can We Begin to Understand Race?" and "What are Health Disparities and What Causes Them?" in the LabXchange library. Additional pathways will be released in the coming months. 

The American Civil War erupted in 1861 as a result of the Southern states' attempt to secede from the Union, primarily driven by their desire to maintain an economy based on the enslavement of Black people. Initially barred from joining the Union Army, thousands of Black individuals formed their own military units, eventually prompting the Union to recruit Black soldiers, in part due to a shortage of white volunteers, as well as a changing international climate. The Emancipation Proclamation legalized Black enlistment, and by the war's end, the Union had 186,000 Black volunteers, making up 10% of the Union Army.

Soldiers and troops were supported and treated by health-care workers, such as Ann Bradford Stokes, the first Black woman to serve in the United States Navy, and James McCune Smith, the first African American to obtain a medical degree. Several Black physicians, including Anderson Ruffin Abbott and Charles Burleigh Purvis, served as acting assistant surgeons at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C., which later became Howard Hospital as part of HBCU Howard University. 

This Black History Month, we’re celebrating Dr. Alexander Augusta, the first Black physician in the United States Army.

 A black and white photograph of Dr. Alexander Augusta. He is a Black man with closely cropped dark hair and a handlebar mustache with curled ends. He is wearing a formal black jacket and a bowtie over a high-collared white shirt. Text reads: “Dr. Alexander Augusta: 1825—1890.”

Background and early medical career

Born to free African-American parents in 1825 in Norfolk, Virginia, Dr. Augusta was determined to pursue a career in medicine since he was a very small boy. He learned to read and write as a young man while he worked as a barber, despite Virginia laws of the time that prohibited the education of Black people. 

Still in his youth, he would move first to Baltimore and then to Philadelphia, where he applied to the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. His application was rejected, allegedly due to inadequate preparation, but Dr. Augusta stated that the rejection was due to “prejudice of color.” Given the aforementioned laws that restricted Black people from pursuing an education at the time, he would have lacked evidence that he met the university’s admittance criteria, a barrier which in itself was a result of systemic racism. Regardless of this initial setback, Dr. Augusta convinced a doctor on the faculty who was sympathetic to his cause to privately tutor him.

Dr. Augusta and his wife moved to California during the gold rush, enabling him to later finance further education at Trinity College in Toronto, Canada. During his six years of study, he opened an apothecary to support himself and his wife, gaining valuable medical experience. After obtaining his degree, Dr. Augusta established his own successful medical practice.

Alongside the RDEISE logo (a circle of hands all holding each other by the wrist), and against a blue background, text reads: “From the RDEISE glossary: Systemic racism: Racism that is enforced in a society through its policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and deliberately unequal balances of power.”
 Systemic racism as defined in the Racism as a Public Health Crisis RDEISE glossary.

Contributions during the Civil War

Dr. Augusta's involvement in the Union Army began when he journeyed to Washington, D.C., and expressed his eagerness to serve as a surgeon in letters to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Initially facing rejection due to prevailing racism, Augusta persisted and traveled back to Washington to plead his case. The board reconsidered, and Dr. Augusta successfully passed the exam on April 14, 1863. This achievement led to Augusta receiving a major's commission as a surgeon, marking him as the first African American to hold such a position for African-American troops. 

“My position as an officer of the United States entitles me to wear the insignia of my office, and if I am either afraid or ashamed to wear them, anywhere, I am not fit to hold my commission.” —Dr. Alexander Augusta

Simultaneously, he was appointed as the first Black hospital administrator in U.S. history while serving in the army. His leadership extended to his appointment to lead the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1863. Augusta's distinguished military service concluded in 1866 when he left the army at the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel, marking him as the highest-ranking African-American officer at the time.


During his life, Dr. Augusta’s activism extended further than his military service and his contributions to ensuring that he and future generations of Black people could excel in the field of medicine. Other than supporting local anti-slavery action during his time in Toronto, he was a staunch advocate against discrimination targeting African Americans in the transportation sector. 

His advocacy efforts included writing influential letters addressing racial bias on Washington, D.C. streetcars, leading to legislative considerations. Dr. Augusta also protested unequal treatment of African-American train passengers, foreshadowing a landmark legal case. Furthermore, his testimony before the U.S. Congressional Committee highlighted instances of racial discrimination, contributing to the broader effort to challenge and rectify systemic injustice.

 A black and white photograph of eight men (including Dr. Alexander Augusta). Dr. Augusta is the only person of color in the group, the rest are white. All of the men are dressed formally and have serious facial expressions.
Faculty of Howard University, Medical Department, 1869–1870. Dr. Augusta is on the far left.

Contributions to education of Black Americans     

During his time living and practicing medicine in Toronto, Dr. Augusta founded the Provincial Association for the Education and Elevation of the Coloured People of Canada, a society that contributed books and various educational materials to support the academic needs of African American children. He was also appointed as the director of an industrial school by the City of Toronto.

Through his multifaceted contributions, Dr. Augusta played a pivotal role in advocating for equal rights, combating discrimination against African Americans, and fighting to keep the United States whole.

Learn more in the infographic “Black Health-Care Heroes of the Civil War” from the RDEISE pathway “Racism and the History of Science”.

Sources and further reading

Written by
LabXchange RDEISE team

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