Clement Alexander Finley was born on May 11, 1797 in Newville, Pennsylvania. His family moved very soon after to Chillicothe, Ohio when his father, a cavalry hero of the Revolutionary War, received a sizable plot of land for his war service. Young Clement was educated in local schools and then returned to Cumberland County to enroll at Dickinson College with the Class of 1815. A tall and reputedly handsome young man, he graduated with his class and then studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving his M.D. in 1818. That August, he entered the United States Army's First Infantry as a surgeon's mate.
Service in this regiment took him to Louisiana and Arkansas, first at Fort Smith and then at Fort Gibson, and later to Florida, Missouri, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After more garrison duty at Fort Dearborn in Illinois and Fort Howard in Wisconsin, he was assigned as chief medical officer for the operations in the Black Hawk War of 1833 and saw campaigning again during the years of the Seminole War. Peace in 1838 brought him back to garrisons in Virginia and New York, as well as a four year assignment "at home" at the Carlisle Barracks. During the Mexican War, he served as medical director for General Zachary Taylor in Texas and then for General Winfield Scott in the Mexico City campaign. His work on both these assignments was curtailed by illness.
In May 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed Finley, the senior medical officer of the Army, to the post of Surgeon General. He immediately engaged in expanding the medical service and selecting sites for new hospitals needed during the Civil War. In April 1862, however, he argued so heatedly with Secretary of War Stanton over appointments that he was removed from his position and was told to prepare for another assignment. He retired from the Army soon after at the age of 65. In 1865, Finley was rewarded for his long service with the breveted rank of brigadier general, which was made permanent, with retired pay, in 1876.
Finley married Elizabeth Moore of Philadelphia in 1832. After a long retirement in Philadelphia, Clement Alexander Finley died on September 8, 1879.