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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

Alexander T. Augusta Confronts Resistance at Camp Stanton

Alexander T. Augusta, Senior Ranking Surgeon

Courtesy Oblate Sisters of Providence, Baltimore, MD

In October 1863, Major Alexander T. Augusta joined his regiment at Camp Stanton in Benedict, Maryland where the mustering of the 7th, 9th, and 19th Regiments of the U.S.C.T. was taking place. Augusta’s arrival was met with controversy when the white assistant surgeons learned that Augusta, a black man, was the senior ranking medical officer among them. In protest against their situation, seven surgeons and assistant surgeons including Joel Morse, Edmund Pease, and Henry Grange, wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln asking that he put an end to the “unexpected, unusual and most unpleasant relationship” in which they had been placed.[1] They claimed to “be behind no one, in a desire for the elevation and improvement of the Colored race in this country…,” but they could not “in any cause, willingly compromise what we consider a proper self respect” by being subordinate to a Black men regardless of his superior rank.

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Edmund Pease, Henry Grange, Joel Morse

Although it is unclear whether Lincoln formally responded to their letter, Augusta was detached to the Recruiting Rendezvous for Colored Troops in Baltimore, Maryland, examining Black recruits. He officially remained the regimental surgeon of the 7th U.S.C.T., much to the chagrin of the regiment’s assistant surgeon Joel Morse, who wrote of his displeasure to Senator John Sherman of Ohio in May 1864. Despite the fact that Augusta had been removed from Camp Stanton and was not serving directly with the regiment, Morse complained that Augusta’s absence put an undue burden on him as assistant surgeon. He called it a “great injustice to the regiment” and an “injustice to the Asst. Surgeon thus called to act the part of Surgeon because he is called upon to perform double duty and bear a great responsibility without any additional compensation.” Morse believed his situation was “grave, unjust, and humiliating; and more particularly so, when our Government had so extensively declared its intentions to be, not to place any of the colored race in the capacity of commissioned officers.” He urged Sherman to assist him in “correcting this wrong” which to Morse meant promoting him to Surgeon of the regiment.[2] His request was denied.

Morse remained assistant surgeon with the regiment, and after the regiment was moved to Texas, he was murdered in Brownsville in July 1866.[3] Augusta retained his position as regimental surgeon until the regiment mustered out in October 1866. The following year he was brevetted Lieutenant Colonel for his meritorious service during the war.

[1] Letter from Joel Morse, et. al. to Abraham Lincoln, Letters Received, ser. 360, Colored Troops Division, Record Group 94 (RG 94) [B-11], National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., Camp Stanton, Maryland. [2] Joel Morse to John Sherman, U.S. Senator, May 14, 1864, Compiled Military Service Record, Alexander T. Augusta, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s-1917, RG 94, NARA. [3] “How Surgeon Morse was Murdered,” Plain Dealer, July 7, 1866. Transcription of a letter from seven white surgeons to President Abraham Lincoln, n.d. Camp Stanton near Bryantown, Md. His Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, President, U.S. Sir, We the undersigned Medical Officers in the Regiments of Colored Troops under Command of Brigadier Gen. McBirney, at this camp, have the honor most respectfully to ask your attention to the following statement. When we made application for positions in the Colored Service, the understanding was universal that all Commissioned Officers were to be white men. Judge our surprise and disappointment, when upon joining our respective regiments we found that the Senior Surgeon of the command was a Negro. We claim to be behind no one, in a desire for the elevation and improvement of the Colored race in this country, and we are willing to sacrifice much in so grand a cause as our present positions may testify. But we cannot in any cause, willingly compromise what we consider a proper self respect. Nor do we deem that the interest of either the country or the Colored race, can demand this of us. Such degradation, we believe to be involved in our voluntarily continuing in the Service as subordinate to a colored officer. We therefore most respectfully, yet earnestly, request, that this unexpected, unusual, and most unpleasant relationship in which we have been placed, may in some way be terminated. Most respectfully Your Obt. Servants, J. B. McPherson, Surgeon, 19th Reg. U.S.C.T. E. M. Pease, Surg. 9th U.S.C.T. Chas. C. Topliff, Asst. Surgeon, 19 reg. U.S.C.T. Joel Morse, asst. Surg. 7th U.S.C.T. M. O. Carter, ass. Surgeon, 19 Regt. Henry Grange, AS 7th Regt. U.S.C.T. John O’Donnell, asst. Sug 9th U.S.C.T.

Learn more about Alexander T. Augusta in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons. Available at Amazon or a fine bookstore near you.

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