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Stonewall’s Doctor: The Story Behind the Virginia Statue of a White Supremacist Physician

Written by January 28, 2022

On July 1, 2020, a truck-mounted crane rolled down Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. It had come to take a Confederate general away.

Sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police weeks before, protests against racial inequality led to an increase in public pressure to remove the statue of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

The statues of two other celebrated Confederate military leaders—Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and naval commander Matthew Maury—would be pulled down from Monument Avenue the following week. A bronze sculpture of a mounted Gen. Robert E. Lee would linger another year before being removed last September.

On the nearby State Capitol grounds stands a statue dedicated to Jackson’s Civil War physician, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire. Despite the removal of Jackson’s Monument Avenue statue, a smaller one honoring the Confederate general sits less than 100 feet to its right.

“Medical science should be as much on trial as Confederate soldiers. But McGuire, who helped blaze a trail for the medical mistreatment of Black bodies, is venerated in the Richmond landscape.”

Like J. Marion Sims—a pro-Confederate surgeon whose experimentation on enslaved Black people led to the invention of the speculum—McGuire is another embarrassing figure casting a long shadow on American medicine.

A self-confessed White supremacist and leading defender of the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative, McGuire retained staunchly pro-slavery views until his death in 1900. 

Similar to that of Sims—whom McGuire once described as “the greatest and grandest” of the nineteenth century’s Southern medical stars—McGuire’s influence on medicine and medical education is impossible to ignore.

McGuire’s advocacy during the Civil War to recognize medical staff as noncombatants helped transform military medicine and the humane conduct of war. The naming of Richmond’s 349-bed Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center recognizes those contributions. 

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

Through the opening of med schools and an influential spell as a professor of surgery at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV)—now Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine—he helped shape the medical education system in Virginia. Countless physicians and patients have benefited from his expertise and experience.

However, McGuire’s racist background has recently forced the removal of all recognition at VCU and the destruction of the heritage-listed cottage in which he died. 

His descendants now support the removal of all their ancestor’s memorials. However, a lack of current state or federal interest in doing so seems to ensure the old doctor will stay on as a reminder of a long-since-past Richmond for some time yet.

“Medical science should be as much on trial as Confederate soldiers,” Michael Paul Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, wrote a month after Jackson’s statue was removed

“But McGuire, who helped blaze a trail for the medical mistreatment of Black bodies, is venerated in the Richmond landscape.”

The road back to Winchester

Born on October 11, 1835, in Winchester, Virginia, Hunter Holmes McGuire was the son of one of the state’s most prominent pre-Civil War physicians. A well-known eye surgeon, Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire helped open the state’s first med school in Winchester in 1826.

Hunter would attend a subsequent iteration of the school, known as Winchester Medical College. He graduated and became a practicing physician at age 19, working alongside his father. In 1856, aged 20, McGuire was named Winchester Medical College’s head of anatomy.

Further education at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College was interrupted in 1859 when McGuire led a walkout of around 250 southern med students protesting against John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. 

Photo credit: public domain.

Med students from Winchester Medical College were involved in a grave-robbing scandal involving bodies from the raid. Given his time as faculty, it is probable that McGuire taught and knew some of the body-snatchers. War began shortly after McGuire joined the New Orleans School of Medicine (now Tulane University School of Medicine).

After initially enlisting to fight as a soldier, McGuire’s medical ability saw him promoted as a Confederate medical officer, private physician to Jackson, and battlefield surgeon during some of the Civil War’s most brutal encounters.

The conflict would take him back to Winchester and cement his place in medical history. Along with Jackson’s Confederate troops, McGuire entered his hometown in late May 1862. Union forces had recently evacuated, but not before burning down the young physician’s former med school in retribution for the grave-robbing incident three years before.

The retreating Union forces had left 700 wounded soldiers in temporary hospitals around the town. Seven surgeons stayed with their patients. McGuire, then 26, proposed that the Union physicians be immediately paroled from their prisoner-of-war (POW) status to care for the wounded. All seven accepted.

After drafting up the “Winchester Accord,” McGuire ensured the agreement circulated on both sides. Two months later, in June 1862, the federal government ordered all medical personnel to be treated as noncombatants. Beforehand, they had been treated as prisoners and combatants.

“It could be argued [that] Dr. McGuire revolutionized American battlefield medicine by humanizing the battlefield and giving injured men a better chance to revel the care they need to survive.”

Though it was preceded by advocacy by Red Cross founder Henry Durant in the late 1850s, the Winchester Accord marked a significant turning point in military medicine. American representation was absent from the first Geneva Convention agreements in 1864, though McGuire contributed to its post-war amendments.

“It could be argued—considering the days when wounded were slaughtered as they lay helpless on the fighting fields—Dr. McGuire revolutionized American battlefield medicine by humanizing the battlefield and giving injured men a better chance to receive the care they needed to survive,” author Sarah Kay Bierle wrote for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

A White supremacist

The American Civil War ended in 1865. The same year, McGuire was appointed head of surgery at the MCV—the only med school in the South to survive the conflict.

The coming decades would see McGuire build an extensive private practice in Richmond and open several private clinics, a nursing school, and a med school that would eventually be absorbed into the MCV system. 

Along with prominent roles in various state and national medical organizations, McGuire served as the president of the American Medical Association between 1893 and 1894. 

“Hunter McGuire was one of the most respected physicians and surgeons in the late nineteenth-century South; he was revered in Virginia,” professor James Breeden wrote in the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society Journal in 1993.

Photo credit: public domain.

McGuire died in 1900, aged 64. He left behind nine children—wife Mary Stuart was a cousin of J.E.B. Stuart, another man whose statue McGuire’s outlasted—several of whom pursued medicine, as well as their descendants.

His great-great-grandson, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, Jr., died in August 2018, having been an admired ex-MCV faculty member and chief surgeon at the VA medical center named after his famous relative.

Despite his achievements and contributions, the former Confederate physician’s dark side isn’t challenging to find.

Published after his death, McGuire wrote the introduction to a 1901 book titled The Old Plantation: How We Lived in the Great House and Cabin, Before the War. In it, McGuire makes clear his pro-slavery beliefs and view that Blacks were inferior to Whites.

“Public opinion from the lakes to the gulf is voicing American utterance as to the superiority of the Caucasian race,” he wrote. 

While president of the AMA, McGuire co-authored an open letter in 1893 titled “Sexual crimes among the southern Negroes,” in which he favored castration for all sexual crimes by Black men.

“In the South, the negro is deteriorating morally and physically; and, as the American Indian, the native Australian, the native Sandwich Islander, and other inferior races disappear before the Caucasian, so the negro, in time, will disappear from this continent . . . it is the frightful ‘survival of the fittest.’”

“Published after his death, McGuire wrote the introduction to a 1901 book titled The Old Plantation: How We Lived in the Great House and Cabin, Before the War. In it, McGuire makes clear his pro-slavery beliefs and view that Blacks were inferior to Whites.”

McGuire’s defense of the Old South didn’t stop there. In the 1890s, he fought the use of “Northern” history books in Virginia’s education system and won. He contributed to several books about Confederate military history, arguing in one that slavery wasn’t the primary reason for the Civil War.

The physician also played a prominent role in promoting the legacy of Jackson, whom he treated on his deathbed in 1863.

“The noblest heritage I shall hand down to my children is the fact that Stonewall Jackson condescended to hold me and treat me as his friend,” McGuire once said, according to the Ohio State University.

The doctor still sits

The same summer Jackson’s Monument Avenue statue came down, the tide was starting to turn against McGuire. In August 2020, three descendants penned a column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch supporting the removal of memorials to their ancestor.

“Arguably the most significant legacy of McGuire was his groundbreaking work to humanize war and redefine how captured military doctors and nurses should be treated in wartime,” they wrote.

But “the family understands that statues and buildings honoring Confederate leaders have caused pain to fellow Americans, and we support the removal of the McGuire memorials.”

Photo credit: Alfred Wekelo for Dreamstime.

Three years before, VCU decided to audit the school for any symbols of the Confederacy, slavery, or White supremacy. In January 2021, a bust of McGuire had been taken down while two research buildings named for him had been changed

His former summer cottage—known as Westwood—was demolished last January. Owned by Richmond’s Union Presbyterian Seminary, the building was ordered destroyed after a board decision in “recognition of and in repentance for the resourcing provided to the seminary through the labor of enslaved persons.” 

While the Department of Defense faces a congressional mandate to rename all American military bases named after Confederate leaders—there are ten—there is little sign the VA plans to change the name of its Richmond medical center.

Though former President Donald Trump long defended statues and bases named after Confederate leaders, the reality is that facility renaming is a hugely difficult process.

The VA confirmed to The Rotation that changing the name of facilities does not fall under its authority. Veteran’s Affairs committees in both the House and Senate would have to unanimously agree to waive naming rules, virtually impossible in the current political climate.

“Arguably the most significant legacy of McGuire was his groundbreaking work to humanize war  … [but] the family understands that statues and buildings honoring Confederate leaders have caused pain to fellow Americans, and we support the removal of the McGuire memorials.” 

The tide of public pressure to take down any remaining Confederate monuments in Richmond has receded after Lee was removed last year. Virginia’s House Speaker decided to take down a host of Confederate busts from within its buildings in July 2020. However, McGuire—and the smaller Jackson—still stand firm, requiring state legislature-wide agreement for their removal. 

While public interest in Confederate statues nationwide has also waned since the spring and summer of 2020, Hunter Holmes McGuire’s continued presence is notable in Richmond. This week, the city’s council began work on removing the stone pedestals for the statues taken down from Monument Avenue.

The last Times-Dispatch story mentioning McGuire’s statue was in September 2021. 73 Confederate statues were removed around the U.S. last year. 723 remain. The doctor still sits.

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