April 24, 2014

Eastern Michigan's Halle Library exhibit highlights accomplishments of African-American surgeons, nurses during the Civil War

by Pamela Young, Published June 04, 2012

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More than 650,000 Americans died of disease or were killed in battle during the Civil War that lasted from 1861-1865. More might have died if not for the skills of African- American surgeons and nurses.

The National Library of Medicine exhibit on African-American Civil War medical personnel is on display at EMU's Halle Library.

The Bruce T. Halle Library at Eastern Michigan University honors African-American medical personnel in its new exhibit, "Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine," which runs through June 23, on EMU's main campus in Ypsilanti. The exhibit is free and open to the public during library hours. 

Developed by the National Library of Medicine, the exhibit explores the roles of African-American men and women, both free and formerly enslaved, who provided medical care to black soldiers and civilians.

The exhibit was very moving, says Eastern Michigan professor Heather Neff, an expert in African-American literature.

"It was a wonderful exhibit," Neff said. "I never knew this information."

The six panels, with period documents and historic images, bring a voice to those who have remained silent for nearly 150 years, said Elizabeth Bucciarelli, EMU's health sciences and medical librarian, who arranged for the exhibit to travel to Eastern.  

Complementing the display are replicas of several Civil War flags, including an early yellow flag symbolizing a hospital site, and a 7th Michigan Cavalry regimental guidon (pronounced guy dun) that belonged to Gen. George Custer's Michigan Calvary Brigade from Grand Rapids.

 A guidon is a smaller notched flag used to mark the location of military units.

Said Bucciarelli, "The library staff also has selected a series of books that provide more in-depth information about the contributions of black medical staff. These are available for check-out."

There were only 13 African American doctors in the union army and not many people are aware of these physicians' contribution to the war effort, she says.

Among the soldiers and nurses featured are:

  • Alexander T. Augusta who served from 1863 - 65. A free-born citizen from Norfolk, Virginia, he attended medical school in Canada. August became the first African-American surgeon-in-charge at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C., which served former slaves.
  • Ann Stokes, a former slave, was hired as a nurse and worked under the director of nurses aboard the USS Red Rover. Stokes was the first African-American woman to serve on board a U.S. military hospital and the only one to draw a Navy pension.
  • John Van Surly De Grasse, was the only African American physician to serve on the field with his regiment, the 35th U.S. Colored Infantry. De Grasse was one of only two black physicians to receive a commission.

The traditional display is supplemented by a web site that contains information for teachers; the history of civil war medicine; African Americans who fought in the war; and a look at the flags on display.

The traveling exhibit was developed and produced by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, with assistance from The Historical Society of Washington D.C.

 

 

Pamela Young

pyoung@emich.edu

734.487.4400

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