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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

A Man of Adventure and Ambition

John H. Rapier, Jr.

Man standing with one hand resting on a table wearing a long jacket.
Courtesy Western University Archives and Special Collections

In August 1864, John H. Rapier, Jr. received his first pay as a surgeon during the American Civil War. He made note of the “most eventful event of my life,” in a letter to his uncle saying, “My draft was in favor of ‘Acting Asst. Surgeon Rank 1st Lieut. U.S.A, in the Spring, I want my drafts payable to Maj. John H. Rapier, Surg., U.S.A.”

Born in Florence, Alabama, John H. Rapier, Jr. was among fourteen known Black Civil War surgeons and one of seven who served at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was a man of adventure and ambition whose appetite for knowledge and his search for a meaningful existence was never stilled throughout his life. An eloquent writer, Rapier spent many hours writing letters to his family and friends, documenting his daily life in a diary, and composing expressive poetry and prose about his life, loves, and innermost feelings. He was a keen observer of the world with a passion for purposeful adventure and an ambition to be more than what was expected of a Black man in nineteenth century America. Much of what we learn of his life and desires comes from his personal writings. He filled his days with travel, politics, study, family, and service. His family roots and the examples set by his strong grandmother, loving father, and successful uncle, influenced and encouraged him in his pursuits. Their strength, perseverance, hard work, and commitment to attaining a free and better life, set an example of self-sufficiency and self-preservation that stayed with him as he navigated through the world.

Learn more about John H. Rapier. Jr. in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons, available June 2023. Pre-order today at Southern Illinois University Press and use SIUP20 for a 20% discount.

© Jill L. Newmark

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