Civil War novelist conveys 'real story' of black soldiers through life of local hero

July 17, 1994|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,Sun Staff Writer

John Zubritsky, a Civil War enthusiast and author, said he found mostly derogatory references to African-American Civil War soldiers during 15 years of planning, researching and writing his novel.

"I found a few exceptions, and I told myself I had to look into it and find out the real story," he said.

Dr. Zubritsky, 57, based two fictional characters in his recently released novel, "Fighting Men: A Chronicle of Three Black Civil War Soldiers," on Howard County native Decatur Dorsey, a former slave, soldier and Medal of Honor recipient who was born around 1839.

A brief paragraph in a 1962 issue of Civil War Times magazine spurred Dr. Zubritsky, an English professor at Prince George's Community College, to search through records at the National Archives, Dorsey's service record and his widow's pension request to piece together the soldier's life and times.

"The one reason why the role of black men in the Civil War is not well known is that most of them didn't take part in well-known battles," he said. "No black soldiers were at Gettysburg, Antietam or Bull Run."

Nearly 8,000 of the 186,097 black soldiers enlisted in the Civil War were involved in the nine-month siege of Petersburg, Va. Dorsey earned his Medal of Honor at the Battle of the Crater during the siege. With a wave of his regiment's flag, he rallied his fellow soldiers to resist a Confederate counterattack in the battle on July 30, 1864.

Dorsey's surname suggests that he was originally owned by one of six prominent Dorsey families who lived in Howard County during the Civil War era, said Dr. Zubritsky, a resident of the Kings Contrivance village in Columbia. According to service records, Dorsey, whose slave name was Cato, enlisted in the 39th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops in March 1864 in Baltimore County. His Medal of Honor certificate lists his birthplace as Howard County.

He was promoted to corporal in May 1864, sergeant in August 1864 and first sergeant, the highest noncommissioned rank in the Civil War, in June 1865. The regiment disbanded in December 1865 and Dorsey later moved to New Jersey.

His wife filed for and received a widow's pension in 1898.

Dr. Zubritsky said he wants his novel about three black men and their reasons for joining the Union Army during the Civil War to read like history.

"To be treated equally was as important to them as to defeat the South," he said. "Black men had to fight to get in the Army, fight to get equal pay and fight to fight."

He incorporated actual letters and military orders written during the Civil War and photographs of black regiments to give the 278-page novel an authentic look, he said.

Adolfo Caso, an editor with Branden Books in Boston, said the novel's style is what attracted his publishing firm to the work.

"Not only is it well-written, John used actual text from the Civil War and built a story around it," Mr. Caso said. "This novel is historically factual."

Two of the novel's soldiers -- Fletcher Howard, whose family had been free since the Revolutionary War, and Elijah Dorsey, a slave who ran away from a Howard County plantation -- are based on Dorsey.

The third soldier, Maj. Augustus T. Alexander, the regiment's chief surgeon, is based on Dr. Alexander Augusta, who operated an Army hospital in Georgia and was promoted to lieutenant colonel at the end of the Civil War, the highest rank achieved by a black soldier.

"These three characters are the spokesmen of different points of views of African-Americans during the Civil War," Dr. Zubritsky said. "I wanted to show that there was much more to African-American society, even in the 1860s, than simply slaves."

"Fighting Men" is not Dr. Zubritsky's first attempt at a Civil War-era novel. He completed a book in 1982 about the relationship between a Charles County slave and his owner's daughter, but he never found a publisher for it.

Ten years later, he started sending letters and synopses to publishers before he had finished "Fighting Men." Mr. Caso said he wanted to see the completed manuscript.

"I really like how John took the differences in the three soldiers, as far as their backgrounds, and brought them together on the battlefields," Mr. Caso said.

The novel is available at Cover to Cover in the Owen Brown Village. It is the only bookstore in the Baltimore area where "Fighting Men" is sold.

There will be a book signing for "Fighting Men" at 10 a.m. Saturday at the store.

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