Alexander Thomas Augusta was the highest-ranking black officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was also the first African American head of a hospital (Freedmen’s Hospital) and the first black professor of medicine (Howard University in Washington, D.C.).
Augusta was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1825 to free African American parents. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland as a youth to work as a barber while pursuing a medical education. The University of Pennsylvania would not accept him but a faculty member took interest in him and taught him privately. In 1847 he married Mary O. Burgoin, a Native American. By 1850, Augusta and his wife moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada where he was accepted by the Medical College at the University of Toronto where he received an M.B. in 1856. He was appointed head of the Toronto City Hospital and was also in charge of an industrial school.
On April 14, 1863, Augusta was commissioned (the first out of eight other black officers in the Civil War) as a major in the Union army and appointed head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry. His pay of $7 a month, however, was lower than that of white privates. He wrote Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson who raised his pay to the appropriate level for commissioned officers.
Augusta also experienced white violence when he was mobbed in Baltimore for publicly wearing his officer’s uniform. When his white assistants, also surgeons, complained about being subordinate to a black officer, President Lincoln placed him in charge of the Freedman’s Hospital at Camp Barker near Washington, D.C. Augusta wrote a letter to his commanding general protesting his segregation on trains when he left Baltimore and requested the protection of the President for other black soldiers and families In 1865, Augusta was promoted to lieutenant colonel, at the time the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. military. He was mustered out of service in 1866.
After the military, Augusta was in charge of the Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia until 1868 when he started his own practice in Washington, D.C. He then became the first black medical professor as one of the original faculty members of the newly formed Medical College at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Despite the financial hardships of the young institution, Augusta remained there until 1877. He also served at the Smallpox Hospital and Freedman’s Hospital, both in D.C. Despite being denied recognition as a physician by the American Medical Association, Augusta encouraged young black medical students to persevere and helped make Howard University an early success. Alexander T. Augusta died in Washington in 1890. He was the first black officer to be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.