Tuesday, May 1, 2001
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff
Union private Ezra Chamberlin struggled up the earthen walls of Fort Wagner
on Morris Island in the early morning hours of July 11, 1863, charging through
cannon fire and the muzzle flashes of Confederate rifles.
And there he died.
Chamberlin, a young man from Connecticut, went to his death as just another victim of a bloody war - until his name turned up in the most unlikely of places: the Hunley.
Archaeologists excavating the interior of the Confederate submarine last week found a medallion with Chamberlin's name on it, still draped around the neck of a crewmen more than a century after the Hunley disappeared.
Conspiracy theories abounded - Chamberlin had jumped sides, or maybe he was a spy. Perhaps a member of the Hunley crew knew the young Union soldier, and meant to deliver the identification medal to his family after the war.
The truth, historians believe, is much more simple.
Stephen Wise, the chief curator of the Parris Island Military Museum and author of a couple of books about the Civil War in Charleston, said most likely the medallion was taken off Chamberlin's body after the battle.
"They did that all the time, took things they found as souvenirs," Wise said.
There is almost no chance, Wise believes, that the body of crewman No. 8 on board the Hunley is Chamberlin.
But his medallion (most likely bought by Chamberlin from a private vendor who made name tags for soldiers - the government didn't issue dog tags until the 20th century) has ultimately, a century after the fact, served its purpose. It has identified a soldier.
Chamberlin enlisted early. The Civil War was not 5 months old when the Killingly, Conn., man joined the Union Army in September 1861.
Assigned to Company K of the 7th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Chamberlin was posted to several garrisons before his unit moved south to Port Royal, the Union's foothold on the coast of the Carolinas and the headquarters of Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
In June of 1863, Company K and the rest of the 7th Connecticut moved north to invade Morris Island, the strategic spit of sand south of the entrance to Charleston Harbor. On July 10, Union troops began bombarding the fortified batteries of Morris Island. The next morning, with Company K in the lead, the Union infantry stormed Fort Wagner.
Some of them made it to the top, and two men in the regiment made it over the wall, bayoneting two Confederate gunners to death. But their attack was unsupported by the unit behind them, and the Connecticut men were routed.
After the war, another Union soldier remembered Chamberlin, a lowly private, trying to rally his comrades in his final moments of life.
"Close up! Close up!" he screamed. But they didn't, and he fell dead - one of 340 Union casualties on Morris Island that day, compared to an even dozen Confederates. The Union tried again a week later, this time sending the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The 54th took more than 1,500 casualties in its failed assault, an event chronicled in the movie "Glory."
After the war, Chamberlin's surviving comrades hailed him as a hero in a church service in Killingly, a Connecticut town too small to show up on the maps. There is a marker with his name on it in a cemetery.
But is he buried there?
Rick Hatcher, the historian at Fort Sumter National Monument, has been doing some digging into the subject at the request of Hunley Commission members.
Unless his family arranged otherwise, Chamberlin would have been buried initially on Morris Island in a mass grave, then moved to the U.S. military cemetery in Beaufort after the war. The cemetery has no record of Chamberlin, but then they wouldn't - unless a soldier wore a medallion he bought himself, or kept some papers in his uniform.
A Union medallion on a Confederate sailor is a perplexing mystery - but that historians could actually find that soldier's name and discover how he died is even more amazing.
And it means that Ezra Chamberlin, who died among the sand dunes of Morris Island 138 years ago, has captured a unique place in the history of the H.L. Hunley.
Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net