Monday, May 16, 2011

Decatur Dorsey

One of the greatest heroes of the Civil War came from HoCo, though not by choice. Decatur Dorsey, one of only sixteen African American soldiers in that conflict to receive the Medal of Honor for courage under fire, was born a slave in HoCo.

Actually, he was born here before there even was a HoCo. Prior to 1851 it was known as the the Howard District of Anne Arundel County. He became a free man in 1864 at the age of 28.

According to the National Park Service website, he “was released by his owner and enrolled in the 39th United States Colored Infantry (USCT) in Baltimore, Maryland. In May he was promoted to corporal and then by July, to sergeant.”

It was at the Battle of The Crater outside Petersburg, Virginia later that same month that people realized that Decatur Dorsey was one incredibly brave dude. Decatur was the colors bearer for his regiment which meant that when the troops charged into battle he carried a flag but no weapon. His hands were already full.

I’ve got to believe that the guy carrying the flag makes a pretty tempting target, especially if that guy also happens to be black in the south in 1864.

Though the men were able to breach the Confederate defenses they were soon driven back by a counterattack. Undaunted, Decatur rallied his men for a second assault.

According to this account from Wikipedia, at the end of the day his regiment “breached the Confederate works and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the defenders. They captured two hundred prisoners and two flags before being pushed back again and ordered to withdraw.”

Despite this, the battle overall went badly for the Union cause that day. Instead of being hailed as heroes, the black soldiers were blamed by some of their fellow white soldiers and newspapers for the defeat that claimed over 5,300 casualties on both sides.

I wasn’t able to find out much about his life after the war. I wasn’t even able to find a picture of him. I do know that he moved on from HoCo, settling in Hoboken, New Jersey where he died in 1891 at the age of 55.

His HoCo roots are honored today by Civil War history marker outside the restored Ellicott City Colored School on Old Frederick Road which, according to their website, also houses the Decatur Dorsey Institute.
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