Black Civil War soldiers are focus of new novel

August 30, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

The 1989 movie "Glory" about the role of black Union soldiers in the Civil War helped convince Columbia resident John Zubritsky to press forward with his research for a novel on the subject.

The film "did a good job beginning to tell the story, and I wanted to tell some more of it," says Mr. Zubritsky, an English professor at Prince George's Community College. "I just think it's a great story that needs to be better known."

Mr. Zubritsky's novel, "Fighting Men: A Chronicle of Three Black Civil War Soldiers," recently was published by a small Boston publisher. It's a fictional account featuring characters based on the real lives of a slave owned by a Howard County family and a high-ranking black officer and surgeon.

Cover to Cover Bookstore Cafe in Owen Brown village, which featured Mr. Zubritsky as a speaker earlier this summer, has sold about 30 copies of the novel.

"It's sold very well, especially considering it's a first book by an unknown author," says Marsha Berman, the bookstore's owner.

Mr. Zubritsky, 58, a Kings Contrivance village resident, had worked on the novel on and off since about 1980. Much of the research for the novel, which combines fiction with historical accounts, came from an unpublished Civil War novel Mr. Zubritsky wrote in the early 1980s about a white woman and a slave from the same Charles County plantation.

The author, who earned a doctorate in American Studies in 1981 from George Washington University, wrote his dissertation on the changing treatment of women and blacks in Civil War novels written between 1900 and 1940.

"That's where I got interested in the Civil War," says Mr. Zubritsky, who teaches technical writing, business writing and American literature.

Two of the three main characters in the novel are loosely based on Decatur Dorsey, a slave who was born around 1840 and was owned by one of the Dorsey families in Howard County. He was sold to a Baltimore County family in June 1861, and enlisted in a black regiment of the Union Army on March 22, 1864. He won a Congressional Medal of Honor for his role in the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Va.

A second fictional character based on Decatur Dorsey is a free black man from Baltimore who enlists in the same black regiment. The third character is based on Alexander T. Augusta, a black doctor trained in Canada who becomes an officer and surgeon in the black regiment.

"I wanted a slave, a free man and an educated man to show the problems they faced in the Army were the same -- the intense racism of the time," Mr. Zubritsky says.

Perry Berman, co-owner with his wife of Cover to Cover, says Mr. Zubritsky's use of fiction and nonfiction helps readers understand "what the personal battles were like, the tremendous animosity toward African-American soldiers." The book is more entertainment than a strictly historical account, he says.

"There are so many gaps in the record that I filled in by making up events," Mr. Zubritsky says. "Historical records from the Army tell you where a regiment was, but not what they did that day."

The Bermans say the book also provides a good history of the Howard County and Baltimore region.

Mr. Zubritsky uses dialect in telling stories from the black soldiers' perspective, but scrapped his first effort based on more historically accurate dialogue because it was too hard to understand, he says.

For his unpublished novel, Mr. Zubritsky contacted about 30 publishers, with barely any response. For "Fighting Men," he targeted Branden Publishing, which specializes in works focusing on women and minorities. The publisher printed 3,000 copies.

Mr. Zubritsky says he expects the novel will appeal to a readership somewhere between "die hard" Civil War buffs and battlefield tourists interested in a picture book.

"I wrote it because I have an interest, not for commercial appeal," he says.

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