The Early Life of Decatur Dorsey

By Gerald W. Ueckermann, Jr. October 19, 2021

By the early summer of 1864 the Union Army’s offensive to finish off the Confederate Army of Robert E. Lee had stalled on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia. There, Union soldiers confronted a fortified rebel line of breastworks and trenches that were fronted by fifteen‐foot ditches and protected by artillery. In order to achieve a breakthrough, Union troops dug a tunnel over 500 feet long in which four tons of gunpowder was placed under the Confederate line. Near dawn on July 30, the gunpowder was detonated. A hole 170 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep was created, that is known to history as “the crater”. Although the explosion formed an opening in the Confederate line, an initial attack led by white Union soldiers failed due to disorganization, disorientation, and conditions in the crater. By mid‐morning Black soldiers had forced their way to the front of the Union forces. Among them was Corporal Decatur Dorsey, a native of Howard County. Dorsey went ahead of the 39th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry, and planted his regiment’s colors on Confederate fortifications. After Confederate counterattacks, Dorsey carried the regimental colors back to Union fortifications and bravely rallied his fellow soldiers. For his bravery at the Battle of the Crater, Dorsey was awarded the Medal of Honor in November 1865.1

Records related to Dorsey’s military service refer to him as “Cato or Decatur Dorsey” and indicate that he was a native of Howard County.2 This article will examine his early life.

Dorey’s mother was a slave to Upton D. Welsh, who owned a farm in western Howard County near Sykesville. In 1835, after Upton Welsh experienced financial difficulties and had judgments entered against him, Welsh’s property, including his farm and five slaves, was seized and sold by the Sheriff.3 Adam B. Kyle, a Baltimore merchant who was Welsh’s largest creditor, bought Welsh’s property from the Sheriff. Kyle and Welsh worked out a payment plan that allowed Welsh to retain possession of the property while the judgments were being paid.4 It was into this legal limbo that Decatur Dorsey, whose slave name was Cato, was born between 1836 and 1838.5

1 McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom, (Ballantine, New York, 1988), pp. 740‐741; 758‐760; Committee on Veterans Affairs United States Senate, Medal of Honor Recipients, (Washington, 1979), p. 77.
2 See records in Decatur Dorsey Army file available at .
3 The slaves named in the advertisement for the Sherriff’s sale were a man named Solomon, a woman named Ann, a woman named Rachel and her two children Joseph and Thomas. “Sheriff’s Sale”, Maryland Gazette, February 26, 1835. Decatur Dorsey’s mother could have been either Rachel or Ann.

4 Anne Arundel County Deeds, WSG 19:581; Howard County Deeds, 3:275.
5 Various census, military and other official records provide ages that indicate Dorsey was born between these years.

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After Upton Welsh missed payments owed to Kyle, Kyle initiated further legal proceedings in 1840, but in 1842 Kyle was paid the money he was owed.6 Upton Welsh evidently was still financially insecure, because on June 1, 1842 Kyle conveyed the property that he had acquired at the 1835 Sheriff’s sale to Napoleon B. Welsh (Upton’s son) as trustee for Mary Welsh (Upton’s wife).7 Included in one conveyance were the slaves that Kyle had acquired in 1835, and the “increase of such negroes since born”. Among the five slaves named, one was a boy named “Cato”, the earliest reference that has been found to Decatur Dorsey.8

The Welsh farm encompassed about 300 acres and was located on what is now Forsythe Road where it meets Underwood Road. The most important crop grown there was tobacco,9 although corn, wheat and oats were also grown. Decatur Dorsey would have labored to produce all of these crops, especially tobacco which was considered a “slave crop” because its cultivation required work through much of the year and was therefore suited to slave labor. Additionally, the improved area of the farm increased by 50 acres during the 1850s, and Dorsey undoubtedly spent much time clearing trees and stone to improve this land.

On July 29, 1858, Upton D. Welsh died. Ten days later, on the evening of Sunday, August 8, Dorsey and Samuel Johnson, a seventeen‐year‐old apprentice to Mary Welsh, attempted to burglarize a store located in nearby Woodbine in Carroll County.10 A small boy who was sleeping in the store heard them, loaded a gun, and when they entered, he shot the intruders. Both men laid on the ground until the morning, and one was reportedly badly wounded.11

Although what motivated Dorsey to attempt the burglary is not known, the death of a master was an intensely distressing time for slaves, since their fate was placed into the hands of new people – sometimes strangers ‐ and the terrifying prospect of being “sold South”, away from family and friends, increased dramatically.12 Upton Welsh may not technically have been Decatur Dorsey’s slaveowner, but he undoubtedly was the decision maker in the Welsh family. His death, and the uncertainty that it caused, had to be extremely worrisome for Decatur. Dorsey’s insecurity could only be aggravated by stories that he probably heard about his early

6 Maryland Chancery Court Records, MSA S512‐9074; Howard County Deeds, 3:275.
7 Howard County Deeds, 3:275; Howard District Chattel Records Vol 1:120, MSA C961‐1.
8 The slaves named in the 1842 conveyance were a man named Harry, a woman named Ann, two boys named Thomas and Cato, and a girl named Judy. Howard District Chattel Records Vol 1:120, MSA C961‐1.
9 The 1850 Agricultural Census states that Upton D. Welsh’s farm included 200 improved and 100 unimproved acres and that it had produced 2,000 pounds of tobacco during the previous year. On the 1860 Agricultural Census Mary Welsh’s farm included 250 improved and 60 unimproved acres and 2,000 pounds of tobacco had again been produced during the previous year.
10 The Carroll County Court Docket states that the attempted burglary occurred on or about August 7, 1858. MSA T3781‐3, p. 50.
11 “Affairs in Howard County”, Baltimore Sun, Aug. 14, 1858, p. 1; The Carroll County Democrat, Aug. 12, 1858, p. 2. These reports indicate that the arm of one of the men had to be amputated. Since post‐conviction appraisals valued Dorsey and Johnson at $1,000 and $205, respectively, and it is extremely unlikely that a man with one arm would have had such high values, the report that one man had his arm amputated appears to be incorrect.
12 Fields, Barbara Jeanne, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 1985), pp. 26‐ 27.



life and the uncertainty then about who would end up controlling his life. It is possible that Dorsey’s burglary of the Woodbine store was part of a plan to run away and escape the risk of being “sold South”.13

“Negro Cato” and “negro Sam” (as Decatur Dorsey and Samuel Johnson were referred to official records) were tried in the Circuit Court for Carrol County for breaking into the store of James Albaugh and Augustus Delander with the intent to rob it. After a jury convicted them both on September 20, 1858, Dorsey was sentenced to the State Penitentiary for a term of 2 years 8 months, and Johnson was sentenced to be sold as a slave for the term of 5 years.14

If Decatur Dorsey’s goal in burglarizing the Woodbine store was to save himself from being “sold South”, his plan failed. Pursuant to Maryland law then in effect, if a slave was sentenced to the State Penitentiary, once the slave’s sentence was completed, they were sold at public sale for transportation outside Maryland.15 This virtually guaranteed that Decatur Dorsey would be taken to the deep South after his prison sentence was finished and that he would be forced to work at the most physical labor there.16

Dorsey, however, had other ideas. On September 26 he escaped from the Carroll County jail in Westminster.17 It was thought that while in the jail yard, he climbed over the wall, and that although he was hobbled, he broke his hobbles.18

Dorsey managed to avoid capture for a month. On the evening of October 26, two Police officers went to a house on Low Street in Baltimore, where Decatur Dorsey was sleeping in bed. They aroused him, but Dorsey resisted and managed to escape to the roof of the house, with gun fire being exchanged along the way. On the roof, Dorsey resisted capture fiercely before hiding in a chimney, but ultimately was persuaded to surrender after additional police officers arrived. Newspaper accounts of his capture recount that he was an escaped convict from Carroll County who escaped while awaiting transport to the penitentiary, and they refer to him as “Decatur Dorsey”, the earliest records that have been found that do so.19 The next day

13 Such a motive, however, would not explain Samuel Johnson’s involvement in the burglary since Johnson was not in danger of being “sold South” and he only had three and one‐half years remaining on his apprenticeship.
14 Carroll County Circuit Court Docket, JBB 2, p. 50, MSA T3781‐3. The Carroll County Circuit Court Docket refers to “Negro Cato slave of Napoleon Welsh” and “Negro Sam slave to Napoleon Welsh for a term of years”. Samuel Johnson was born Feb. 14, 1841 and was apprenticed to Mary Welsh in 1855 to serve until the age of 21. Howard County Indentures, vol.1, p. 113. It is unknown why he is referred to in the court docket as a slave for a term of years rather than an apprentice, although the interchange of the terms does suggest the similarity with which slaves and apprentices were treated. A post‐conviction newspaper article refers to him as Samuel Johnson, leaving no doubt as to his identity. The Carroll County Democrat, Oct. 28, 1858, p.2.

15 Maryland Laws, 1845, Ch. 340; 1849, Ch. 124.
16 Brackett, Jeffrey R., The Negro in Maryland, (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1889), p. 124.
17 Baltimore Sun, Oct. 2, 1858, p. 1.
18 “Got Out of Jail”, The Carroll County Democrat, Set. 30, 1858, p. 2.
19 “Arrest of a Fugitive from Justice”, Baltimore American, Oct. 28, 1858, p. 1; “Convict Arrested”, Baltimore Sun, Oct. 28, 1858, p. 1; see also “Arrest of an Escaped Convict”, Baltimore Daily Exchange, Oct. 27, 1858, p. 2. Dorsey



“Decatur Dorsey” was taken back to Westminster,20 and on October 29, 1858, “Cato slave of Napoleon Welsh” was received at the the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore from Carroll County to serve his sentence.21

At the time, Maryland law provided that when a slave was sentenced to the penitentiary, their value was to be determined, and the County where they were convicted was required to pay the slave’s owner the appraised amount.22 In this case, Dorsey’s value was appraised at $1,000.23

Residents of Carroll County were not happy about having to pay $1,000 to Howard County resident Napoleon Welsh because of a crime that a slave who lived in Howard County committed in Carroll County. In early November of 1858, Carroll County officials and citizens (including all three Commissioners and the State’s Attorney) petitioned Governor Hicks to pardon “Cato” on the condition that he be sold out of state as a slave for life.24 On November 10, Governor Hicks denied the request to pardon Cato or otherwise commute his sentence.25 The displeasure among Carroll County taxpayers that they were required to pay Welsh $1,000 as a result of Cato’s prison sentence raises the possibility that jail workers in Westminster “looked the other way” and allowed Dorsey to escape in September.

At the time of his entry to the Penitentiary in 1858 “Cato” was described as a 20‐year‐old mulatto who was 5’113⁄4” tall. He was a native of Howard County.26 The penitentiary was a profit center for the state, and while he was incarcerated there, Dorsey worked in a shop run by Charles Murdock. Murdock employed prison labor primarily to make cedar ware, which he sold in Southern states. Murdock paid the state 50 cents a day for each convict so employed.27

Dorsey completed his sentence on May 20, 1861. Pursuant to Maryland law then in effect, when a slave completed their penitentiary sentence, they were to be sold at public sale for transportation out of the state. (The money received was paid to the County where the prisoner had been convicted to reimburse it for the payment it previously made to the slave’s

spent the night of October 26 in the Baltimore City Jail under the name “Cator Dorsey”. Baltimore City Jail Criminal Docket, 1855‐1859, MSA Citation: C2057‐13.
20 Baltimore American, Oct. 28, 1858.
21 Prisoners Record, Maryland Penitentiary, MSA SE65‐5, Record No. 5306,‐5

22 Maryland Laws, 1845, Ch. 340; 1849, Ch. 124.
23 Maryland State Archives, Secretary of State (Pardon Papers 1858), MSA S1031, 5401‐55, folder 50. Carroll County paid Napoleon Welsh a total of $1,205 for Cato and Sam, indicating Sam was valued at $205. The Carroll County Democrat, Oct. 6, 1859, p. 3. Samuel Johnson was sold to Napoleon Welsh for a term of five years on Oct. 25, 1858 for $168. The Carroll County Democrat, Oct. 28, 1858, p.2.
24 Maryland State Archives, Secretary of State, Pardon Papers 1858, MSA S1031, 5401‐55, folder 50.
25 “Pardons”, Baltimore Daily Exchange, Nov. 20, 1858, p. 2.
26 Prisoners Record, Maryland Penitentiary, MSA SE65‐5, Record No. 5306.
27 Report and Accompanying Documents of the House Committee Appointed to Examine the Affairs of the Maryland Penitentiary (B.H. Richardson, Frederick, MD. 1861)

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owner).28 By that time, the Civil War had begun, so Southern slave traders would not have been among the prospective purchasers. Dorsey was bought by Edward Rider, Jr. who had a farm near Towson in Baltimore County.29 How the requirement that Dorsey be transported out of the state was handled is not known, although it was probably an impossible condition to fulfill since most states where slavery was legal were in rebellion at the time.30

Records related to Dorsey’s activities over the next three years have not been found.

On March 22, 1864 Dorsey enlisted in Regiment 39, Company B, of the U.S. Colored Infantry as a private. He enlisted as a free man even though he had not been freed by Rider.31 Dorsey compiled an excellent record as a soldier and established himself as a leader. Less than two months after he was enrolled, he was promoted to corporal. A little more than four months after his enlistment, Dorsey fought at Petersburg and displayed the bravery for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was promoted to sergeant two days after the Battle of the Crater, and to first sergeant on January 1, 1865. He was mustered out on December 4, 1865.


28 Maryland Laws, 1845, Ch. 340; 1849, Ch. 124.
29 Rider stated in an 1867 affidavit that he purchased “Cato or Decatur Dorsey” from the State of Maryland in June 1861. “Evidence of Title”, in Decatur Dorsey Army file available at .
30 The only other Eastern slave state that was not in rebellion was Delaware. A Maryland resident who wanted to bring a slave into Delaware needed to petition a Delaware Court for a license allowing them to do so. Laws of the State of Delaware, Revised edition, (Wilmington, 1829), pp. 501‐502. It is unlikely that a Delaware court would have granted a license to permit a slave who was a felon to be brought into the state.
31 Affidavit of Edward Rider, Jr. dated Oct. 26, 1864, University of Maryland, Maryland Manuscripts collection item 4288.

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