Medical Officers in the Military

Why was physician and abolitionist Martin R. Delany important during the Civil War?

Upon the order of President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Robison Delany (1812–1885) was the first black commissioned as a field officer with the rank of major in the regular infantry, in 1865. Assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, he recruited two regiments of blacks. Delany was born in what is now Charles Town, West Virginia, the son of a slave father and a free mother. He is reputed to have believed that he was descended from African royalty, and this may have influenced his later activities as a founder of Black Nationalism and advocate of emigration to Africa. The family relocated to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, after facing racial problems in Charles Town, and Delany was educated in Chambersburg until 1827, when he had to go to work. Four years later he left for Pittsburgh, which was his home for the next twenty-five years. In Pittsburgh he established his leadership as an advocate for blacks and continued his education. In or around 1843, Delany began publishing The Mystery, said to be the first black newspaper west of the Alleghenies. In 1850 he entered Harvard Medical School, but left after one semester because of the protests of white students; he gave himself the title of “doctor” and did indeed practice medicine in Pittsburgh. Delany moved to Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1864. It was at this time that he advanced a plan to recruit black troops commanded by black officers to fight on the side of the Union in the Civil War. It was after an interview with President Abraham Lincoln with regard to the plan that Delany became an army officer. The war ended before his plan could be put into effect. He was assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Beaufort, South Carolina. He remained there until he ended his army career in 1868. He transferred his attention to politics and served as a judge briefly, but was removed after being charged with fraud. Some considered Delany a radical, but he was, for a time, a recognized leader among blacks. He returned to Wilberforce shortly before his death.


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