“I Objected”: A Black Mother Takes a Stand Against Coerced Enlistment

ECW welcomes guest author Brendan Hamilton

“You never told me that you was going to enlist my son, either in the army or navy. When I met you, you said you had thought of doing it, and I objected to it.”

An unidentified woman and child, ca 1860-1870. (Library of Congress)

In March 1865, a woman named Caroline R. Dorsey stood up before a committee of the Rhode Island State Senate and confronted the superintendent of the Providence Reform School, Rhode Island’s state-run juvenile penal institution. The Senate committee had been assembled to investigate allegations that the Reform School was coercing its underage inmates into enlisting in the U.S. Army in exchange for commissions, or “head money,” from the Provost Marshal. Multiple witnesses testified that eleven boys, many of them working-class African American and Irish American, were enlisted at the same time without their parents’ consent. Moreover, they stated that the Reform School staff made themselves “trustees” over the large enlistment bounties due to the boys and refused to relinquish the money to them or their parents. The witnesses included several mothers of enlisted boys. Dorsey, whose son, John Thomas Sykes, was enrolled in the Army at the age of seventeen, was one of them. [1]

Caroline R. Dorsey was born in Maryland circa 1812. It is quite possible she was born into slavery. By the 1850 US Census, she was a free woman living in New Castle, Delaware with husband Isaac Sykes and two children, including her son John Sykes. She and John relocated to Providence, Rhode Island by the time of the 1860 U. S. Census. It is possible they left Isaac Sykes behind in Delaware; an Isaac Sykes of a similar age appears in Wilmington in the 1860 Census, and a local newspaper suggests he may have had a run-in with the law for drunk and disorderly conduct in 1877. Caroline remarried Reverend William J. Dorsey in Providence and took his surname between the time of the 1860 U.S. and the 1865 Rhode Island State Census. Her son John Sykes was imprisoned at the Providence Reform School while in his teens.

The Reform School released John Sykes to enlist as a private in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (later the 11th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery) in February 1865. Eighteen was the minimum age for enlistees (exempting musicians), and regulations required that any enlistee under twenty-one years old have his age vouched for and consent given by a parent or guardian. Since Sykes was in the care of the Reform School, the institution relied on an “in loco parentis” claim of guardianship to ignore the desires of his own mother in order to enlist him in the Army. There is no evidence that Sykes or the Reform School staff tried to inflate his age to the regimental recruiter. In fact, Sykes’s enlistment record lists his age as sixteen. It seems likely that the recruiting officer simply did not care. [2]

Private John Sharper, one of John Sykes’s comrades in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. (Library of Congress)

Caroline Dorsey testified before the committee that she spoke to James M. Talcott, the superintendent of the Reform School, on the streets of Providence prior to her son’s enlistment.

About three months before my son went into the army, I saw Mr. Talcott on South Main street, and asked him about it. I saw a piece in the paper about sending some of the boys away to the navy. He told me that he intended to enlist him into the navy, and I objected to it; told him I didn’t want him to go into the navy, and I didn’t want him to go into the United States service at all. [3]

“What did he say?” a Mr. Lord of the Committee asked. “He didn’t make me any answer at all,” Caroline Dorsey replied. Lord then asked her when she first heard of her son’s enlistment.

I suppose it to be about three weeks ago Friday. I went out to the Reform School with the expectation of seeing my son, and they told me that he was on his way to New Haven. Says I, “Why?” They said Mr. Talcott had enlisted him. Then I asked him when I could see Mr. Talcott, and they told me, for he was not at home at that time. So, on Monday, I came back and I saw Mr. Carpenter. I talked with him, and he told me that my son was very much opposed to going, without getting to see me. He told me what grieved him was that he could not get to see his mother. And, on a Tuesday I went again to see Mr. Talcott, and I asked him why he enlisted my son. He told me because he chose to. Then I told him that my son was under age. He said it made no difference; he could do as he had a mind to with my son. Then I asked him about the money, and he gave me no further satisfaction about it. [4]

The money to which Caroline Dorsey referred was her son’s bounty, a bonus offered to military recruits as an incentive to enlist. Shortly after her visit to the Reform School, Dorsey traveled to New Haven, Connecticut to visit her son in his regiment’s camp. There, Sykes told her Talcott pressured him to enlist and insisted upon taking his bounty. Seeking a less hazardous path out of the Reform School, he asked the superintendent to indenture him out as a farm laborer instead. While this was common practice at the Providence Reform School as it was with most American juvenile prisons, Talcott insisted Sykes was “too large” to be accepted for work on a farm. Military service, he claimed, was the only option available to the boy. While Sykes had the choice between three years’ and one year’s enlistment terms, Talcott further pressured Sykes into opting for the former, threatening that he would put him back in the Reform School if he did not. Sykes acquiesced and was eligible for a significantly higher bounty, $380 in total, for signing on for three years. Sykes told Talcott he wanted this bounty to go to his mother, but, as Dorsey recounted, “he said, Mr. Talcott had taken the money.” [5]

Group of uniformed boys standing outside a building, likely the Providence Reform School, ca. 1870 (detail from half of a stereoview). (New York Public Library)

When Talcott was called up to testify, he did not dispute most of the substance of Caroline Dorsey’s testimony. He did, however, argue that he told Dorsey “as much as three times” that he fully intended to enlist Sykes in the military or on a whaling ship and that she “objected every time.” He also denied that he pressured any of the boys he enlisted and he claimed that the bounty money that had been taken from them was simply being held in the bank on their behalf. Dorsey was recalled to testify and was immediately asked about Talcott’s claim that he told her of his intentions to enlist her son. She denied it, dramatically turning toward Talcott himself to rebuff his charge directly. “You never told me that you was going to enlist my son, either in the army or navy,” she said. “When I met you, you said you had thought of doing it, and I objected to it.” [6]

The courageous testimony of Caroline Dorsey and other witnesses shed critical light on the corrupt practices of the Rhode Island State Reform School. The Senate committee reached the following determination:

From all the facts stated, and on reference to the laws, your committee are satisfied that a practice has grown up in this institution which is justified by no law; which is a perversion of the objects of the institution, as declared in the public laws, and which rides over the rights of parents and guardians, in not only depriving parents of their minor children, without their consent, but depriving them also of the control of those children’s earnings paid to them in advance for dangerous and distant service, beyond the reach of kindred, friends, or even the institution itself. [7]

Remarkably, however, the committee continued in the very next paragraph to assert that the Reform School officers were honorable men of “blameless moral purity” who merely “erred in judgement” despite their good intentions. They offered no redress for the complainants, like Caroline Dorsey, whose sons had been taken from them and flung into a bloody Civil War while being denied access to the bounties to which they were entitled. And although the committee proposed an act to halt the practice in the future, their suggestions passed the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives. There is no evidence that the Reform School’s enlistment practices continued, but the cessation of the war eliminated the demand for volunteers and thus removed the monetary incentive provided by the lucrative bounties. This is not to say the institution saw a return to a state of ethical bliss. It was embroiled in another scandal a mere three years later. This time, its staff was accused of imposing harsh corporal punishments upon its inmates, altering children’s names to conceal them from their parents, and misappropriating Reform School property. [8]

John Sykes remained with his battalion, performing garrison duty in the former Confederate city of New Orleans. With the close of the war, Sykes’s three-year term of service was shortened, and he was mustered out of the service with the rest of his company in October 1865. He returned to the North, moving to New Haven, Connecticut, where he took up farming. He died in 1879 of typhoid pneumonia at the age of 31. [9]

Brendan Hamilton has previously written multiple guest articles for Damian Shiels’ Irish in the American Civil War blog. He is also a poet and fiction author. His book of poetry, Jerusalem Plank Road (Durga Press, 2011) was inspired by the final days of the Petersburg Campaign. His work has also appeared recently in the anthology Thought for Food and Exterminating Angel Press.

[1] Report Made to the Senate, p. 3-4. Rosen, p. 56-60.

[2] 1850 U.S. Federal Census. 1860 U.S. Federal Census. Daily Gazette. 1865 Rhode Island State Census. U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records. Report Made to the Senate, p. 5.

[3] Report Made to the Senate, p. 16.

[4] Ibid., p. 16.

[5] Ibid., p. 17.

[6] Ibid., p. 18-20.

[7] Ibid., p. 5.

[8] Ibid., p. 8. Rosen, p. 56-60. Grzyb, p. 58.

[9] U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records. U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885.

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3 Responses to “I Objected”: A Black Mother Takes a Stand Against Coerced Enlistment

  1. Matt McKeon says:

    Rhode Island…..sigh.

  2. bfswartz says:

    Thank you for this insightful article.

  3. Pingback: Week In Review: August 10-16, 2020 | Emerging Civil War

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