Alexander Thomas Augusta (1825-1890) 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—Freedman’s Hospital—and the first black professor of medicine in the United States, at 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 young man to work as a barber while pursuing his medical education. The University of Pennsylvania would not accept him but a faculty member took interest in him and taught him privately. In 1850, Augusta and his wife moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada where he was accepted by the Medical College at the University of Toronto. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1856 and shortly after, was appointed as head of the Toronto City Hospital.
On April 14, 1863, Augusta was commissioned as a major in the Union army and appointed head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry. He was the first of eight black officers in the Civil War. President Lincoln placed him in charge of the Freedman’s Hospital at Camp Barker near Washington, D.C. His white assistants, who were also surgeons, complained about being subordinate to a black officer. In 1865, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, at the time the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. military.
After the military, Augusta was head 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 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 and was the first black officer to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.