Union private's tale adds to Hunley lore
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
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 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
"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
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
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
After the war, another Union soldier remembered
Chamberlin, a lowly private, trying to rally his comrades in his final moments
"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
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
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
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