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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

Within These Walls

Black Civil War Surgeons at Freedmen's Hospital

Freedmen's Bureau

The United States government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in March 1865. The Bureau’s primary mission was to provide aid to millions of formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. As director of the bureau, General O.O. Howard formed the medical division and devised a plan to open hospitals throughout the South to tend to the medical needs of freedmen. As part of their effort they established hospitals that employed over 100 physicians and offered medical care to Black women, men, and children. One such hospital was Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. where half of the Black Civil War surgeons served.

Freedmen's Hospital began as Contraband Camp and Hospital which was established in the District of Columbia in 1862 to serve the newly arriving formerly enslaved women, men and children. Located on a swampy parcel of land in northwest Washington it was one of the only hospitals in Washington that treated Black people. In 1863, Major Alexander T. Augusta became the hospital’s surgeon-in-charge and the first African American to direct a hospital in the United States. There would be two other Black physicians who served as surgeon-in-charge during the Civil War--William P. Powell Jr. and Anderson R. Abbott. Four other Black surgeons served as acting assistant surgeons there including Alpheus W. Tucker, William B. Ellis, Charles B. Purvis, and John H. Rapier Jr.

William P. Powell Jr. and Anderson R. Abbott. Lithograph of Freedmen's Hospital at the site of the former Campbell Army hospital.

Contraband Hospital would become Freedmen’s Hospital and control transferred from the army to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Of the fourteen Black Civil War surgeons, seven served at Freedmen's Hospital between 1863 and 1865. By 1868, only 11 of the Freedmen’s Bureau hospitals remained and by 1872, all had closed except the hospital in Washington, D.C. which had become the teaching hospital for Howard University's medical department in 1868.

Freedmen’s Hospital continued to serve the population of Washington, D.C. over the next 100 years, expanding its facilities and offering its services to both black and white patients. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill that officially transferred the hospital to Howard University. Moving into new facilities in March 1975, Freedmen’s Hospital was renamed Howard University Hospital and today continues the tradition of providing medical care to the Washington, D.C. community.

Learn more about the Black surgeons who served at Freedmen’s Hospitals 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

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