Updated: Jan 28, 2021
The Lost Lives of London Town series remembers the lives of Africans and African-Americans enslaved in the London Town area. We'll share their stories as best as we know of them. The stories aren't always easy to read, but they are always important.
In this installment of the “Lost Lives of London Town,” we’ll look at the African American experience in the area during the Civil War.
James Henry Dorsey was born a free man in the 19th century. He may have even resided at Scrabbletown, a small free black community on the Rhode River, not far from London Town.
After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, the executive order solidified that the Civil War was about ending slavery – although it did not affect enslaved people in states that stayed with the Union, including Maryland. Instead, slavery didn't end in Maryland until 1864 when a referendum passed by a slim margin.
The Emancipation Proclamation also opened the possibility of enlisting men of African descent into combat roles. In the Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln required all federal armed services to receive African American men. This became a reality on May 22, 1863 with General Order 143 which created the Bureau of the Colored Troops. All African American regiments were now to be designated as United States Colored Troops (USCT).
On March 30, 1864, James H. Dorsey enlisted as a corporal in Company F of the 39th USCT. After receiving his blue uniform, Springfield rifle, and equipment, he marched off to the front lines in Virginia.
The turmoil of war was incredible. Corporal Dorsey was at the horrific Battle of Crater (part of the siege of Petersburg, VA) and the racially motivated massacre that followed. Multiple Confederate accounts describe soldiers as being “infuriated at the idea of having to fight negroes” and that murdering surrendering and unarmed African American soldiers “was perfectly right, as a matter of policy.” However, African American soldiers were courageous under fire with 15 African American soldiers going on to receive Medals of Honor from fighting in the Virginia Theatre.
Somehow, Corporal Dorsey survived this terror.
He persevered, continuing to fight for the Union until his discharge on May 5, 1865, less than a month after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Appomattox, Virginia on April 9th.
James Dorsey spent the next year in medical care, suffering from “hypertrophy of the heart,” a condition slowing the blood from the heart. For the rest of the year, Corporal Dorsey convalesced in hospitals from the Carolinas up through Harewood General Hospital in Washington, DC . We do not know what happened to Corporal Dorsey after his discharge.
Learn more about the story of Black Soldiers in the Civil War in this video from the American Battlefield Trust: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/videos/black-soldiers-civil-war
Image of the Battle of the Crater courtesy of the Library of Congress.