"The Senior Surgeon of the Command was a Negro"
Alexander T. Augusta Arrives at Camp Stanton
On October 23, 1863, Major Alexander T. Augusta reported for duty at Camp Stanton in Benedict, Maryland to muster in with his regiment as surgeon to the 7th Infantry of the United States Colored Troops. Camp Stanton was established to recruit and train African American men for the U.S. Army. Named after Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the camp trained soldiers in the 7th, 9th, 19th, and 30th regiments of the USCT.
Augusta arrived at the camp wearing his military uniform and carrying a standard surgical field kit and pocket kit. As the ranking medical officer among four regiments, his arrival was met with much controversy. The white medical officers objected to being placed in a position subordinate to a Black man and protested to President Abraham Lincoln in a letter saying,
"When we made application for position on the Colored Service, the understanding was universal that all commissioned officers were to be white men. Judge of our surprise 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 interests of either the country or of the colored race, can demand this of us. Such degradation, we believe to be involved with 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."
Augusta’s qualifications were not under attack by these white surgeons. What they objected to was a Black man’s position as the ranking medical officer. This was based solely on the concept of racial hierarchy in society, which they were now imposing on the medical profession. Their opposition to his presence as their superior officer was quite clear—he was Black, and they would not be subordinate to a Black man regardless of his rank.
It is not clear whether their letter reached President Lincoln, but by the end of 1863, Acting Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes ordered the reassignment of Augusta to Birney Barracks in Baltimore, a USCT recruiting station, where he would examine Black recruits. Augusta would remain the regimental surgeon of the 7th Infantry but would never serve with them in the field.
Learn more about Alexander T. Augusta 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. Also available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
© Jill L. Newmark 2022