Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons

Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons

by Jill L. Newmark
Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons

Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons

by Jill L. Newmark

Paperback(First Edition)

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Advancing the cause of racial equality while saving lives

Of some twelve thousand Union Civil War surgeons, only fourteen were Black men. This book is the first-ever comprehensive exploration of their lives and service. Jill L. Newmark’s outstanding research uncovers stories hidden for more than 150 years, illuminating the unique experiences of proud, patriotic men who fought racism and discrimination to attend medical school and serve with the U.S. military. Their efforts and actions influenced societal change and forged new pathways for African Americans.
Individual biographies bring to light Alexander T. Augusta, who challenged discriminatory laws; William P. Powell Jr., who pursued a military pension for twenty-five years; Anderson R. Abbott, a friend of Elizabeth Keckley’s; John van Surly DeGrasse, the only Black surgeon to serve on the battlefield; John H. Rapier Jr., an international traveler; Richard H. Greene, the only Black surgeon known to have served in the Navy; Willis R. Revels, a preacher; Benjamin A. Boseman, a politician and postmaster; and Charles B. Purvis, who taught at Howard University. Information was limited for five other men, all of whom broke educational barriers by attending medical schools in the United States: Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, William B. Ellis, Alpheus W. Tucker, Joseph Dennis Harris, and Charles H. Taylor.
Newmark presents all available information about the surgeons’ early lives, influences, education, Civil War service, and post-war experiences. Many of the stories overlap, as did the lives of the men. Each man, through his service as a surgeon during the war and his lifelong activism for freedom, justice, and equality, became a catalyst of change and a symbol of an emancipated future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809339044
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
Publication date: 05/31/2023
Series: Engaging the Civil War
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 222,637
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jill L. Newmark, independent historian, is a former curator and exhibition specialist at the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Her exhibits include “Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine,” “Within These Walls: Contraband Hospital and the African Americans Who Served There,” and “Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons.” She has published articles in Prologue and Traces, as well as online in Circulating Now and blackpast.org. Find more about her work at www.blackcivilwarsurgeons.com.

Read an Excerpt


On a rainy morning in February 1864, Major Alexander T. Augusta, former surgeon-in-charge of Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C., left his lodgings to head to a court martial hearing downtown where he was called to testify. As he stepped outside, he hailed the approaching streetcar. He attempted to enter the car, but was stopped by the conductor who told him that he would have to ride upfront with the driver because no Black passengers were permitted to ride inside. Augusta refused and moved forward to take a seat when the conductor physically ejected  him from the car forcing him to walk to the hearing in the rain and delaying his arrival. Outraged, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner introduced legislation to desegregate streetcars in Washington which became law the following year.   

Augusta’s position and status as a military officer and surgeon enabled him to be a catalyst for change through his public activism. His streetcar incident and Sumner’s response illustrate the challenges he and others faced in the fight for equality as well as the ability of an individual to be a force for social and political change. Historian Wilbert L. Jenkins noted that during the Civil War Black people were “central actors in their own lives and not…passive objects of a white-dominated society.” This is certainly true of Augusta and the thirteen other African American men who became physicians and took positions as medical officers in the U.S. Army. They were not complacent or satisfied with only achieving their goal to become physicians, but were committed to using their positions to advance the cause for freedom and equality.    

The lives and accomplishments of fourteen Black men who served as surgeons during the American Civil War are explored in this book through the themes of justice and freedom, patriotism and pride, and the individual as a force for change. The accounts of these men go beyond the obvious merits of their military service to explore the people and influences that shaped their early lives and the impact they made on their communities, their race, and their country. Their ambitions were not deterred by society's prejudicial dictates, and their dignified acts of resistance and pioneering new pathways challenged the status quo. They became symbols of an emancipated future.

In 1860, the enslaved population in the United States was nearly four million, and the country would soon be entrenched in a civil war fighting to unite the country and end slavery. After the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 that launched the Civil War, many were anxious to fight for the U.S., including Black men, both enslaved and free, who were ready to take up arms. They believed joining the U.S. Army would demonstrate their right to citizenship and their patriotism. The fourteen men featured in this book were among those who were dedicated to the fight for freedom. They were committed to using their medical skills in support of emancipation and in service to thousands of Black soldiers and civilians during the war. Many of these men had been activists and advocates for social and political change prior to the war. Some had participated in the anti-slavery movement and actively promoted education and advancement for African Americans. When they became military surgeons, they moved their activism into a larger theater where they could use their newly acquired positions as military officers to advocate for change and support fellow Black soldiers and formerly enslaved people.  

The idea that Black men in the U.S. Army uniform used their positions and profession to make “claim to equality in the public sphere” and demand “a wider definition of freedom” for themselves and for all African Americans has been advanced by historian Gretchen Long. Enlisted Black soldiers demonstrated this when they publicly paraded with their regiments taking space on the city streets as free men. When Augusta, in full military uniform, refused to stand in an area for Black riders on a streetcar, he laid claim to equality in the public sphere. His act of defiance was a public protest against an unjust and discriminatory law. It was a demand for equality and an act of patriotism. As E.A. Bucchianeri writes, “it’s not unpatriotic to denounce an injustice committed on our behalf, perhaps it’s the most patriotic thing we can do.” Even the simple act of wearing a military uniform in public was patriotic. Black soldiers in uniform demonstrated their desire to unite the country and join in the fight for freedom despite the fact they were not recognized as full citizens with all the rights of citizenship. Though their presence would not usher in a resistance-free movement towards freedom and equality for African Americans, it would serve as a stepping stone towards emancipation and citizenship.

Black soldiers were met with both acceptance and resistance when wearing the U.S. Army uniform. African Americans were proud to see Black men in the Union blue and cheered them when their regiments paraded down city streets. When a battalion of Black soldiers in Little Rock, Arkansas paraded in the city, they were described as “a sight to send a thrill through the heart of every lover of freedom." But Black soldiers did not always face such a jubilant reception. While wearing the uniform in view of white civilians and soldiers, they were often met with resistance and violence. Augusta was attacked on a train in Baltimore by a group of white men while wearing his uniform. When he mustered in with his regiment, he faced opposition to his position as the ranking medical officer by fellow white officers. The white medical officers were not shy to voice their objections to his presence as their superior and did so in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln. Rank and file Black soldiers were often jeered and ridiculed by angry white soldiers and civilians, even suffering the indignities of having their insignia and stripes ripped from their uniforms.

Resistance to the participation of Black soldiers in the war was not unusual. It was expressed by people at all levels of society. President Lincoln did not publicly support the recruitment of Black men before January 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, as his primary concern was the preservation of the Union. In the summer of 1862, when a visiting delegation of men from the west met with Lincoln offering him two regiments of Black men from Indiana, he responded that “he would employ all colored men offered as laborers, but would not promise to make soldiers of them.” The delegation left with the understanding that “unless some new and more pressing emergency arises," Black men would not be enlisted in the U.S. Army. But as the war lingered on and U.S. Army resources became strained and depleted, it became evident that the recruitment of Black men was a necessity for the U.S. to be victorious.

Recruitment of Black men began in earnest after the formation of the U.S.C. T. in May 1863 with only white officers appointed to lead Black soldiers. Resistance against the full participation of Black men in the army was deep seated in racism. It was fueled by the stereotypes and mythologies about Black people created by a dominant white society in a largely slave-holding country that believed Black people were lazy, unintelligent, irresponsible, had no ambition, and were best suited to menial labor. Although Lincoln eventually supported the recruitment of Black men, many white officers and soldiers clung tightly to their prejudices. Historian Joseph T. Glatthaar, in his study of the relationship between white officers and Black soldiers, makes note that Northern white officers of the U.S.C.T. came to the war with preconceived notions about Black people primarily founded on the ideas and beliefs promoted by their Southern enemy. Though some white officers proclaimed their support of emancipation and the advancement of Black people, many harbored biases against them. They were resistant to the advancement of Black soldiers and their full participation on the battlefield. These prejudices and the negative preconceived notions of Black people held by white officers and soldiers undoubtedly influenced their attitude towards Black soldiers fueling the fires of discrimination and mistreatment.

Despite this resistance and the prejudice they faced, many African American soldiers took pride in wearing the U.S. Army uniform. A formerly enslaved man when donning the Union blue said, “This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life. I felt like a man with a uniform and a gun in my hand.” Another declared, “I felt freedom in my bones.” Their pride and patriotism were palpable. Some memorialized this important moment of their lives in photographs while wearing their uniform. Historian Deborah Willis notes that photos of Black soldiers frame them in patriotism and manhood allowing us to “imagine in an instant the sense of bravery and pride that accompanied the very act of pinning and wearing the emblematic eagle and brass button.” Her understanding that these portraits of black soldiers “are connected to the concept of democracy and citizenship” touches upon the significance of their presence and participation in the war and their sense of patriotism.

A Black man in an officer’s uniform had even greater significance, as it represented position and authority not previously available to Black people. When surgeon John H. Rapier, Jr. took a position at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., it became clear to him that wearing an officer’s uniform sometimes garnered unprecedented respect for a Black man. In a letter to his uncle, he described how he had first decided not to wear his uniform, but after observing the respect other Black officers in uniform received, he changed his mind and would now dress in full uniform, pointed hat and all. Rapier’s recognition of how appearance effects the way one is perceived while instilling a sense of pride in oneself, speaks to the knowledge of self-representation and the politics of appearance. What one wears can indicate rank, position, status, and authority, and can influence how one is treated and respected. A white officer recognized the transition of the Black man when wearing the U.S. Army uniform when he said, “He completely metamorphosed, not only in appearance and dress, but in character and relations too…Yesterday a slave, to-day a freeman…he is nothing of what he ever before was; he never was aught of what he now is.” African American soldiers, surgeons and officers in uniform not only changed how Black men were viewed, they helped change how Black people envisioned themselves and redefined the conventional notions of authority and the role of African Americans in society.

Wearing a uniform and receiving a rank also changed the relationship of Black people with “the state and white society.” Historian Kate Masur suggests that Black soldiers in uniform were bolstered by their new positions to challenge the “vestiges of slavery.” This seems evident by the newfound respect garnered by some Black soldiers in uniform, especially Black officers, and how their status and position broke through social barriers. The newly acquired positions of surgeons like Augusta and Rapier provided entrée into social and political circles, giving them unprecedented access to the influential elite. In Washington, D.C., their presence at public events did not go unnoticed and their attendance was often as shocking to many as it was celebrated. When Augusta and fellow Black surgeon, Anderson R. Abbott, attended a reception at the White House, it represented a new level of social interaction and opportunity not previously afforded to African Americans at any level of society. Though their presence was met with mixed responses from those in attendance, its significance cannot be denied. Two Black officers in uniform, for the first time, walked among the white political elite with equal access to the president and first lady. As U.S. Army officers, Augusta and Abbott held positions that helped open the door for Black people and change their relationship with white society. 

Though their new standing as authority figures in the U.S. Army was met with resistance at almost every turn, their positions as officers allowed them to advocate on behalf of soldiers and civilians in ways not previously available. As the first African American to head a hospital in the United States, Augusta was able to hire additional Black surgeons, assist the newly arriving formerly enslaved people by providing medical care and employing them in paying hospital jobs, and advocate for improvements in facilities and care. While directing the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C., he attempted to improve the water supply by noting the deficiencies of the facility and their effects on the health of the residents of the Contraband Camp where the hospital was located. Later in the war, while serving as surgeon-in-charge at Freedmen’s Hospital in Georgia, Augusta often confronted white city politicians regarding unfair and discriminatory policies effecting the health and well-being of his staff and patients. His rank and status placed him in a position where he could advocate for changes that would improve the lives of African Americans under his care and living in his community. As a symbol of emancipation and an agent of change, Augusta was not alone. Each of the fourteen Black surgeons who served during the Civil War possessed the educational credentials, self-respect, and an awareness of the extent to which their influence could effect change. Collectively they helped shape a new view of African Americans and pave the way for greater opportunities for advancement and acceptance of Black people in American society.

Without Concealment, Without Compromise is a collective biography of fourteen Black Civil War surgeons and the experiences that shaped their lives and influenced change. It adds to the existing and growing historiography on the subject by providing a more comprehensive examination of these surgeons. Several scholars have touched upon the stories of Black Civil War surgeons. For example, Margaret Humphreys’ Intensely Human includes a chapter on Black medical personnel as related to the health of the Black Civil War soldier. In it, she explores the idea that Black soldiers received second-class medical care at the hands of white surgeons; perhaps a greater number of Black surgeons would have improved the health of Black soldiers. Jim Downs’s Sick From Freedom incorporates the service of Alexander T. Augusta as it relates to the health conditions of the formerly enslaved people at a hospital in Georgia. Downs explores how Augusta advocated on behalf of his patients and the local Black community. Though Humphreys and Downs offer useful glimpses into the service of these men and the influences they had on health care during the war, their focuses are not on the life journeys that brought these men to positions of power that enabled them to influence the health and well-being of those under their care. My aim is to offer a more holistic approach that encompasses all aspects of the Black surgeons’ lives and work.

This book is organized by surgeon with each chapter focused on a single surgeon or a group of surgeons around a common element. The organization was predicated on the available resources and information for each surgeon. As with any biography, the extent of the storytelling can often be limited by the available resources and previously published research. In the case of several of the surgeons, published research is minimal and few primary sources were available. In those cases, surgeons were grouped around a common element or theme. Those with a greater availability of primary and secondary sources warranted an entire chapter.

The paths these men traveled to become military surgeons in a nineteenth-century segregated army can only be appreciated by having an understanding of the era’s medical education. This background is explored in Chapter 1. The stories of individual surgeons are examined in Chapters 2 through 10. Alexander T. Augusta, William P. Powell, Jr., and Anderson R. Abbott were the first African Americans to hold positions of authority at a hospital in the United States and their stories are highlighted in Chapters 2 through 4. Chapter 5 and 6 discuss the lives of John van Surly DeGrasse, the first African American member of the Massachusetts Medical Society and John H. Rapier, Jr., a dentist, physician and prolific writer. The life of the only known Black Naval officer, Richard H. Greene is explored in Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 reveals the story of Willis R. Revels, the only African American preacher-physician to serve as a surgeon during the war. Chapter 9 discusses the life of Benjamin A. Boseman and his rise from military surgeon to politician. Family tradition can influence activism and this theme is explored in the story of Charles B. Purvis in Chapter 10. The stories of Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed and William B. Ellis are told in Chapter 11, framed around their medical education at two Ivy League schools while the phenomenon of four Black medical students—John H. Rapier, Jr., Alpheus W. Tucker, Charles H. Taylor, and J.D. Harris—attending a single medical school in Iowa is explored in Chapter 12.

My hope is that by lifting the veil on these often-hidden stories, my book will reveal the dedication, commitment, courage, and patriotism these Black Civil War surgeons demonstrated as they served their country at a critical moment in American history. Their presence and accomplishments contributed to the U.S. Army’s success, influenced change, and forged new pathways for African Americans in society.

[end of excerpt]

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations 

1. Breaking the Color Barrier: The Medical Education and Military Service of African  American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century
2. Catalyst for Change: Alexander Thomas Augusta (1825-1890)
3. For Race and Country: William Peter Powell, Jr. (1834-1916)
4. Witness to History: Anderson Ruffin Abbott (1837-1913)
5. Serving in the Regiment: John van Surly DeGrasse (1825-1868)
6. Adventure and Ambition: John H. Rapier, Jr. (1835-1866)
7. From Ivy League to U.S. Navy:  Richard Henry Greene (1833-1877)
8. Preacher and Physician: Willis Richardson Revels (1817-1879)
9. Physician, Politician, Postmaster: Benjamin Antonius Boseman (1840-1881)
10. A Family Affair: Charles Burleigh Purvis (1842-1929)
11. The Black Ivy League: Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed (1833-1900) and William Baldwin Ellis (1833-1867)
12. The Iowa Connection: Alpheus W. Tucker (1844-1880), Joseph Dennis Harris (1834-1884), and Charles H. Taylor (1844-1875)


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