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Tracing legacy of a black Civil War soldier

 By Donald Scott, Sr.

I can still remember the crisp May evening five or six years ago when Thomas I. Dawson approached me after I delivered a lecture commemorating Cheltenham Township, Pa.’s history dating back to the 1680s. As I prepared to leave the podium in an auditorium of Cheltenham High School, situated just northwest of Philadelphia, Pa., the 76-year-old native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore approached and asked, “You ever see one of these before?” 

He whipped out a silver-colored medal with the inscription: “P. Dorsey; Co. H; 43rd Pa. Vol. Inf.” It represents a soldier’s service in the 43rd United States Colored Troops which was based during the 1860s at Chelten Hill’s (today Cheltenham) Camp William Penn, the largest and first federal facility to train black soldiers during the Civil War. It’s where the likes of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott and other abolitionists spoke to soldiers who would fight in many of the major battles of the Civil War and even help to capture Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee and track Lincoln’s assassins.

Thomas Dawson holding his ancestor's medal. Photo courtesy Donald Scott

Then Dawson, a serious-looking bespectacled man, hit me with news that brought sheer delight: “He was my grandfather,” he proudly said, referring to the name on the medal. 

Dawson, a former Army radar technician and merchant marine who’s seen more than 50 countries and his share of racism while a child and serving America, smiled cautiously. There was also a seriousness that reflected his grandfather’s struggle with racism, yet contentment in knowing that his long search to learn more about his black family heritage had been joyously rewarded.

The fascinating story of how the Philadelphia resident found out about his grandfather’s affiliation with the 43rd Regiment – an outfit that heard Harriet Tubman give a speech at Camp William Penn and participated in such Virginia battles as Hatcher’s Run, the Rapidan campaign and the Mine Explosion Assault at Petersburg – started with his cousin, David Hudnell of West Chester, Pa., giving him the medal more than a decade ago.

Then, it was one of Dawson’s daughters, Gail, who became so intrigued with finding out more about her great-grandfather, Prestley Dorsey, that she intensified her family’s genealogical research. While on a business trip she found exquisite information at the Mormon’s family-research facility in Salt Lake City, on the Internet and at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

When I visited Dawson’s Philly home, just off of Cheltenham Ave. on Bouvier St., the widower displayed stacks of documents that his daughter retrieved and copied. Those papers, including Army medical records, tell a remarkable story about Dawson’s grandfather and give his physical appearance of hazel eyes, dark hair, a “yellow” complexion and standing 5 feet, 8 inches, with a “scar on outside of left thigh.”

Dawson learned that Prestley Dorsey was born about 1840 in Howard County, Maryland. He speculates that his paternal ancestors may have worked for a white Dorsey family, possibly as slaves; although, there’s no clear evidence that his grandfather was a slave. However, the documents reveal that his wife, Mary Benton, was enslaved.

Still, Dorsey, at age 24 in April of 1864, enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops’ 43rd Regiment and was based at Camp William Penn, according to the documents. During his tour he received a severe leg injury and was hospitalized at least twice for various ailments before being mustered out October 20, 1865 in Brownsville, Texas. He eventually traveled to Maryland’s Eastern Shore area with a friend, Armstead Williams. Dawson’s family still maintains ties with the Williams clan.

While in the Army, however, his grandfather’s “Dorsey” surname was changed via a clerical mistake to “Dawson,” noted Dawson, who was a licensed marine engineer and taught in a maritime school before being hired by General Electric as a customer trainer, production engineer and safety engineer. 

After the war, similar to many African-American Civil War soldiers, Dawson’s grandfather had tremendous trouble receiving a pension, various pension records indicate. “They would give it to him for a while, and then take it away,” Dawson said, obviously hurt that his grandfather eventually lost the pension, as well as his widow, the ex-slave Mary Benton.

And although Dawson admits that he also faced severe racism during the 1940s as a child growing up not far from where Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, he’s in awe about how people like his grandfather triumphed. “It boggles my mind at thinking about what they had to deal with,” he told me, also mindful that Douglass, a great abolitionist and orator, visited and spoke to the soldiers at Camp William Penn on July 4, 1863.

Indeed, other abolitionists and Underground Railroad giants such as William Still, Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Greenleaf Whittier, William Purvis and others were associated with the camp in the LaMott, Pa. neighborhood that’s named after Mott, a white Quaker and women’s rights advocate, who lived nearby. In short, the area became an epicenter of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement in the midst of training for some of America’s first federal black soldiers, the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

These days, Dawson lives by himself. His six kids are grown and wife died years ago of cancer. Yet, he seems content and often travels back to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He appears to be a happy, busy man who’s traveled the world and found adventure, and even his family’s roots. 

And much of those roots were much closer to home than he ever thought. After many years of living on Bouvier St. in Philly near the border of Cheltenham Township, he was surprised and elated when I told him that about 30 yards away across the street, stood the sprawling Camp William Penn where his ancestor trained as a warrior for freedom among almost 11,000 black soldiers.

Donald Scott, a history columnist for the Journal-Register Co. and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Cheyney University, has written about history for The Philadelphia Inquirer, America’s Civil War and Everton’s Family History Network. Scott has been a history lecturer in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Speakers’ Program and researcher for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. The assistant professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia resides in Cheltenham, Township, Pa., not far from where Camp William Penn was located. A version of this story originally appeared in The Times-Chronicle and Glenside News newspapers of eastern Montgomery County, Pa.     


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8 Sep 2005 . 8 Sep 2005
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