“Without Concealment, Without Compromise, The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons” by independent historian Jill L. Newmark is an important contribution to our knowledge of racial, medical and military history. Published earlier this year as part of the “Engaging the Civil War” series from Southern Illinois University Press ($29.95 - trade paperback) it portrays a collective biography of fourteen Black doctors who were the first to serve in the Union army during the Civil War.
Rare Book Hub first met author Newmark in June at a talk she gave at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Fredrick, MD and followed up in July with a phone interview.
“I've tried, as much as possible,” she said, “to tell the stories of these Black surgeons through their own words and their own voices, and not interpret their meaning. I think that their words are powerful and can stand on their own,” she said.
Her book, more than 15 years in the making, is clearly a labor of love. She uses painstaking scholarship to track down hard to find biographical information from scant clues using the resources of many US and international libraries, special collections and archives.
Newmark became interested in the subject in 2007 when she was employed as Exhibition Specialist in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in Bethesda. In that capacity she worked on Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries, an exhibition featuring pioneering Black men and women who served as surgeons and nurses and how their work as medical providers challenged the prescribed notions of race and gender.
“That's when I came across Alexander T. Augusta who was the first Black medical officer in the US Army and the first Black professor at Howard University's medical department. I was intrigued by him and wondered how many other Black physicians may have served as surgeons during the Civil War?”
In 2014 she organized a panel for the Society of Civil War Historians on the health of Black soldiers during the war, asking whether more Black surgeons would have meant better health care for those soldiers? “As a result,” she said, “I was approached by Sylvia Frank Rodrigue at SIU Press about a book project. At the time I hadn’t written a page yet; it was all in my head. I did a book proposal and the rest is history.”
Without Concealment expands substantially on the subject first raised by Robert G. Slawson MD in Prologue to Change, a slim 52 page paperback published in 2006. According to Slawson, ”at least thirteen African American physicians served in the Union Army during the Civil War.” He named three who were commissioned officers and ten who served as contract surgeons. All of them served with the United States Colored Troops or in various Freedmen's Hospitals with African American patients, or were involved in recruiting US Colored troops.”
Commissioned officers identified by Slawson were Alexander Augusta (1825-1890), John van Surly DeGrasse (1825-1868). He also put David O. McCord in this category.
Newmark’s research led her to believe that McCord was miscategorized, and was not actually Black. As she writes in her preface, “If McCord had been identified as an African American man it is unlikely he would be appointed surgeon to an all white regiment in 1862, prior to the start of official recruitment of Black men that began in 1863.”
To those two commissioned officers, Newmark’s book adds twelve more who served as contract surgeons, for a total of fourteen.
William Peter Powell Jr. (1834-1916)
Anderson Ruffin Abbott (1837-1913)
John H. Rapier Jr. (1835-1866)
Richard Henry Greene (1833-1877)
Willis Richardson Revels (c.1817-1879)
Benjamin Antonius Boseman Jr. (1840-1881)
Charles Burliegh Purvis (1842-1929)
Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed (1833-1900)
William Baldwin Ellis (1833-1866)
Alpheus W. Tucker (1844-1880)
Joseph Dennis Harris (1833-1884)
Charles H. Taylor (1844-1875)
The text provides detailed biographical sketches of each one accompanied by photos and excerpts from letters and other manuscript material. All are discussed in detail in this 283-page soft cover book.
“You find small amounts of information that leads you to the next level of information and then the next level of information,” she said describing her research method. “It takes persistence, an inquisitive mind, the ability to think outside the box, and a passion for the subject matter.”
Though she retired from the National Library of Medicine in 2020, she found that “working at the world's largest biomedical library had distinct advantages. Being there opened it up for me.” She mentioned the frequent use of inter-library loan and the ease with which facsimiles of various manuscript materials can be transmitted, “now that so many collections have been digitized. That fact has been transformative to research in general.”
Along the way Newmark touches on several recurring themes:
One is the psychological impact of seeing a Black man in the uniform of an officer, and how the authority it symbolized shaped the view these men had of themselves, as well as how they were viewed by others, which she termed “the politics of appearance.”
Another is the pervasive aversion white doctors had to serving with a Black colleague. Even though some of the white physicians mentioned had abolitionist sympathies, or came from abolitionist backgrounds, those views did not extend so far as to be willing to serve with or under the command of a Black doctor. “You have to consider the time,” she said, “many were open, but not that open.” The Black doctors also faced opposition and exclusion when trying to join white-only medical societies.
Also noted multiple times is the difference between the way American Blacks were regarded, as opposed to those who came from other countries, such as Jamaica, Canada or Scotland. Those who were “of color” or “African descent,” but claimed some other country as their homeland or place of medical education, seemed to have faced less prejudice than those who were American born.
Newmark commented,”Ideas of a Black foreigner were not the same as a formerly enslaved American. Everybody has their own prejudices, there is no such thing as color blindness.”
Also of interest is what she calls the “Iowa Connection.” Four of the fourteen (Alpheus Tucker, Joseph Dennis Harris, Charles H. Taylor and John H. Rapier Jr.) received their medical education at Keokuk Medical College in Keokuk, Iowa. Each of the four black men who graduated from the school, also known as the Iowa College of Physicians and Surgeons, “arrived in Iowa from different circumstances, but for the same purpose – to obtain a medical education.”
The reactions to her book have been very good. She mentioned a July review in the Civil War Monitor that comments, (Newmark) “offers a much-needed examination of the inspiring lives of multiple Black men who fought to destroy not only the Confederacy, but also ever-evolving forms of racial discrimination within the U.S. army.” To that she added, “The endorsements that appear on the cover and inside my book are a reflection of the response from the scholarly community. Most recognize the detailed and in-depth research that is reflected throughout the book and have given praise for bringing this neglected part of Civil War and medical history to light. “
Find Jill Newmark’s website at
She will speak at Dartmouth College and Yale University in the fall. Dates and times for these and other events are posted on her site, as well as related information.
eMail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other links for Newmark
2010 C-Span, African-American Civil War Surgeons
2020 African American Surgeons in the Civil War Era
2023 Talk before Massachusetts Historical Society https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dt5-EIgILZ4
Links related to Slawson's Prologue to Change
2011 - article by Slawson in Black Past
2016 by Slawson for National Museum of Civil War Medicine
National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Frederick, MD
National Library of Medicine (NLM) Binding Wounds,Pushing Boundaries
Link Recent Review
July 2023 review in Civil War Monitor