By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in May 2022.
Although regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were staffed mostly by white officers, 120 African Americans were commissioned in the Union army during the Civil War. The highest ranking of those Black officers was Alexander Thomas Augusta, who left the U.S. Army in 1866 with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel.
Augusta was born into a free Black family in Norfolk, Virginia on March 8, 1825. He learned to read, a skill that was both unusual and illegal in Virginia at that time. The Augustas moved to Baltimore, Maryland while Alexander was still of school age. He continued to study and worked as a barber to help support the family.
Augusta was a bright young man and wanted to study medicine. He applied to the University of Pennsylvania to realize his dream, but was not accepted. The university cited the reason for this rejection as “inadequate preparation.” A faculty member sympathetic to his quest offered to mentor him privately, which Augusta accepted.
Augusta fell in love and married Mary O. Burgoin in Baltimore on January 12, 1847. Various sources describe Mary as of Native American descent. After a brief trip to California, Augusta enrolled in 1850 at Trinity College in Toronto, Canada to study medicine. Six years later he earned his degree and joined the staff of the Toronto City Hospital.
When the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861, Alexander and Mary returned to Baltimore. Alexander took a job as a pharmacist at a local drug store, but he had higher ambitions. He wrote to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to offer his services as an army physician. Once again he was rejected. There were flimsy excuses offered, for example, that having been in Canada, Augusta was perhaps a British subject and therefore in violation of that nation’s Neutrality Act or perhaps his Canadian medical license should not be recognized in the United States. Augusta thought it was because of his color.
Not to be denied, Augusta traveled to Washington to plead his case. He was referred to the Army Medical Board and invited to take the medical exam. He passed and on April 14, 1863, Dr. Augusta was commissioned the rank of major and surgeon in the 7th USCT, making him the highest ranking Black officer in the United States Army. His pay was $10 a month, less than that of a white private. He wrote to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, who was influential in getting Augusta’s pay raised to the appropriate level for a commissioned officer.
The question now was where to place Dr. Augusta. A Black doctor treating white soldiers was considered unacceptable. For that matter, even a Black officer commanding white soldiers was considered unacceptable. Augusta was assigned as chief surgeon of the Freedman’s Hospital at Camp Baker outside of Washington. Despite his higher rank, the hostility of some white doctors and soldiers made life difficult for Dr. Augusta. Many white civilians resented him wearing an officer’s uniform, and he was mobbed in Baltimore while walking the streets. The same thing happened on the streets of Washington. Despite these obstacles, Dr. Augusta performed his duties well at the hospital, and he remained a strong advocate for his race.
When Augusta was asked to testify in a court case in the capital, he was late for the hearing because the street railway driver refused to let Augusta board. There had been cases of other Blacks in Washington denied admittance and forcefully expelled from the streetcars. When Augusta finally made it to the hearing, he let the court know why he was late and vented his feelings of discrimination. Due to his rank and prestige, his case was referred to Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, who took up the cause. Dana collected the relevant documents, obtained a sworn statement from Augusta, and forwarded all of these documents to Senator Charles Sumner. Sumner, in turn, introduced anti-discrimination amendments regarding street railway companies in Washington. Sumner read Augusta’s complaint into the Congressional Globe and called for an investigation. The congressional committee at first resisted proposing new legislation, but in March 1865 Congress passed a law prohibiting the exclusion of persons from streetcars in the capital on account of their color.
After the war, Dr. Augusta was put in charge of the Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia until 1866, when he decided to leave the army. Although brevetted a lieutenant colonel, the promotion to lieutenant colonel was not confirmed. Once again Augusta’s advancement was rejected, this time by the military. He returned to Washington, where he started his own private practice. In 1868 he became the first Black to be appointed to the faculty of Howard University. Despite being denied recognition as a physician by the American Medical Association, he encouraged young Black medical students to persevere. He remained a strong advocate for equal rights until his death in Washington on December 21, 1890. Alexander Augusta was the first Black officer buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Heather M. Butts, “Alexander Thomas Augusta – Physician, Teacher, and Human Rights Activist,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 97: 106-109, February 2005.
“Black Soldiers in the Civil War” (https://education.blogs.archives.gov/2013/12/10/black-soldiers-in-the-civil-war/).
Jimmy Fenison, “Alexander T. Augusta (1825-1890)” (https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/augusta-alexander-t-1825-1890/).
“The Color of Bravery: United States Colored Troops in the Civil War” (https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/color-bravery).
“Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War” (https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war).