No Yankee on Hunley, experts say


Saturday, February 9, 2002



Of The Post and Courier Staff
     Seems there wasn't a Yankee on board the Hunley after all.
     Forensic investigators said Friday that the sailor found wearing the dog tag of a Union soldier named Ezra Chamberlin was too old to have been the Connecticut Yankee.
     A study of the sailor's remains indicates the man wearing the medallion was in his 30s; war records indicate Chamberlin would only have been about 24 at the time.
     "The age is not in agreement with the age that Chamberlin would have been," said Linda C. Abrams, genealogist for the project.
     Chamberlin's possible role in the Hunley saga had added more intrigue to an already intriguing story. Scientists excavating the sub's interior last year found the medallion stamped with Chamberlin's name and his outfit - Company K, Seventh Regiment Connecticut Volunteers - around the neck of the man serving as first officer of the Hunley.
     Chamberlin was reported killed while attacking Morris Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor on July 11, 1863 - seven months before the Hunley disappeared in Feb. 1864.
     The find sparked a number of theories: He was a defector to the South; he was a spy; he was a prisoner of war forced to sail on the experimental torpedo boat.
     But most likely, Abrams said, the medallion was just picked up by a rebel soldier after a battle - a souvenir worn as a trophy "like an Indian carrying a scalp."
     After finishing the excavation of the Hunley last year, scientists have turned their attention to studying the collected data, the recovered artifacts and the men who sailed aboard the sub on its final voyage.
     This week, Doug Owsley - head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History - and a team of experts have rebuilt the crew members, sorting all the bones found on board. Because there was little mingling of remains, the job was easier than they had anticipated.
     The early findings of the physical anthropologists tell a sad tale and reveal several surprises. It appears that all eight men on board the sub were white and of European descent.
     They had back problems and torn rotator cuffs from cranking the Hunley's propeller inside the cramped, 42-inch-wide hull. Owsley said they were taller than he expected and that they ranged in age from young adulthood into the 40s.
     The youngest crewman, whom scientists affectionately refer to as "the kid," was about 18 to 20. "He was an enthusiastic, gung-ho sailor," Owsley said, adding that his personality probably resembled that of a high school student on an adventure.
     Owsley said that the team hopes to eventually "write the biographies of these men as is told in the skeletons."
     Abrams has been following a skimpy path of records on the men who sailed on the Hunley's final voyage. It is almost certain that none of the men came from South Carolina, but tracing their origins has been hampered by poor record-keeping by the Confederate government - enlistment papers did not ask for hometown or birth date. So far, her hunt has had mixed results: She has good information on two of the men, and she doesn't even have the first names of two others.
     Still, she is hopeful of being able to identify and learn the story of these men, "so we at least bury them by their names and not as unknowns."
     Jamie Downs, the chief medical examiner for the state of Alabama, will be studying the remains over the next few months, trying to determine why the crewmen died. This summer, facial reconstruction experts will begin the process of putting a face on the crew members - a process that likely will take a month per man.
     Owsley, Abrams and the rest of the scientists will convene at the lab in May to trade information in the ongoing process of trying to solve the mystery of the Hunley's final hours.

Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net



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