Decatur Dorsey was a Union Army soldier who played a valuable role during a key battle during the American Civil War.
(No photo of Dorsey is widely available or known to exist)
“The Battle Of The Crater” took place in the town of Petersburg in Virginia, sparking a long-running series of clashes between Union and Confederate forces during the pivotal war. Dorsey’s role in the battle was especially noteworthy, considering his humble beginnings.
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He was born into slavery in Howard County, Maryland in 1836, although birth records for slaves were poorly kept and this year is not definite. Dorsey would join the 39th United States Colored Infantry (USCT) in Baltimore, advancing quickly to the rank of corporal. Dorsey’s ascension would be fast-rising, especially after his heroic actions in Petersburg which would further cement his legacy.
“The Battle Of The Crater” was named so because of a military tactic used during the “Siege Of Petersburg” by Union forces who hoped to breach the city’s defenses by setting off explosives underneath the Confederate lines and using the element of surprise to ambush the troops. The explosion left a huge crater, and eventually became a death trap for the White soldiers who rushed in with reckless abandon as Confederate forces fired down on Union fighters who fell inside the hole.
Dorsey was a “color bearer” or flag bearer for the USCT, as he and his fellow troop were mainly reservists. The 39th was then ordered to attack with Dorsey leading the charge. Planting the Union flag on Confederate strongholds, his troop would have to retreat and regroup for a second attack. During the follow-up attempt, Dorsey and the 39th breached a Confederate fortification and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Dorsey and the USCT captured over two hundred prisoners and two Confederate flags before retreating one last time.
For his heroism, Dorsey received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on November 8, 1865. He was discharged from the Army a month later after achieving the rank of sergeant and later married. He would relocate to Hoboken, New Jersey and lived the rest of his days there, passing July 11, 1891 at the approximate age of 55.
Although not a celebrated name in the annals of history, Dorsey’s actions are astounding considering the oppression he was born into.