Puzzle piece may rest with Union soldier's father

Chamberlin ID tag mystery remains

Picture Removed Temporarily

Thursday, August 2, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff

     DNA from Ezra Chamberlin's father may be the only way to tell if the Union soldier was on board the last mission of the Confederate submarine Hunley.
     And if a newly discovered 19th-century newspaper clipping can be believed, there is a chance he was.
     An Associated Press story in Wednesday's paper reported that Connecticut researchers would not be digging up Ezra Chamberlin's grave because they had learned he wasn't in it.
     A wartime report in a newspaper that served Chamberlin's hometown of Killingly, Conn., suggests that, contrary to initial accounts, Chamberlin and a friend survived the assault on Charleston's Fort Wagner and became prisoners of war.
     The Aug. 20, 1863, blurb, listed in the Windham County Transcript, says Henry Glines and Chamberlin were originally reported as missing in the July 11, 1863, attack.
     But it goes on to say "recent information renders it certain that young Glines was not killed or wounded, but is a prisoner."
     The report adds "and there is good reason to believe that young Chamberlin is also a prisoner."
     The account did not indicate what that information was.
     If accurate, it could deepen the intrigue around Chamberlin, whose personalized identification tag was found hanging around the neck of a Hunley crewman during excavation in April.
     "Doesn't it make it even more possible" that Chamberlin was on the sub? queried Killingly town historian Margaret Weaver, who discovered the newspaper story.
     Hunley experts may now have to resort to forensic science to verify whether Chamberlin had a role in the Hunley story. That means scientists may have to dig up his father to see if there is a Chamberlin family connection to the crew.
     The only way to possibly avert opening Elisha Chamberlin's grave is to find a living family descendent, which genealogists so far have been unable to do.
     "We can get it to the early 20th century, and then we lose the family," said Connecticut state archaeologist Nicholas Bellatoni. "We hit a dead end."
     That leaves opening Elisha Chamberlin's grave and removing a bone or a molar tooth as one option. If the remains are too decayed, forensic scientists could also resort to opening the grave of his mother.
     U.S. Army records say Ezra Chamberlin, of Company K, 7th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers, died July 11, 1863, attacking Fort Wagner on Morris Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. His body was never found. Historians this weekend confirmed his remains are not in the family plot in Killingly by reading his father's 1880 obituary, which says Ezra's body was not recovered.
     What happened to Ezra Chamberlin in Charleston remains a mystery and numerous theories have surfaced as to how his ID got on the sub. He may have survived the battle and switched sides. Or he may have been aboard the sub as a POW.
     A more likely scenario, according to one author, is that his dog tags were picked up by a rebel after the fight.
     Author Stephen Wise, who has written about the Fort Wagner attack and the siege of Charleston, said he doubts Chamberlin is the man inside the sub. For one thing, if someone like Chamberlin changed sides in the Civil War, it would have been headlined for propaganda purposes, Wise said.
     Also, the failure of Northern troops to claim his body would not have been out the norm, given that Confederates would have buried Union dead immediately and in mass graves, he said, pausing long enough to strip the bodies clean of boots, clothing and belongings.
     In the meantime, Bellatoni said the search is continuing for Chamberlin family members and that he would like to have their written permission before the state decides to open a grave up. If no blood link is found, the state could still legally move in and open the grave up for examination, he said.
     He also said there is a buzz in Connecticut over solving the mystery of whether there was a native son on board what he believes is one of the nation's greatest maritime finds.
     "To have a Connecticut connection is pretty exciting for us up here," he said.
     The Hunley was recovered a year ago off Charleston Harbor.
  Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net.  

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