Civil War mystery thrills historians
How did a Connecticut Yankee's ID tag end up on a Confederate sub?
By MICHAEL LEMANSKI
KILLINGLY -- Edwin Ledogar, executive director of the Killingly Historical Center, is absolutely giddy these days.
After all, it isn't often this sleepy, Quiet Corner town learns it's linked with one of the nation's most historic naval battles.
But when South Carolina researchers found the identification tag of local resident Ezra Chamberlin in the wreckage of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley last week, local historians' eyes grew to the size of propellers.
"It's a historian's dream," said Ledogar, a self-described history nut who must visit the nearest home of an ex-president wherever he vacations.
The Hunley, as depicted in a 1999 TNT cable television movie, was a primitive Confederate submarine that sank off the Charlestown, S.C., coast Feb. 17, 1864. It sank after successfully attacking the Union blockade ship Housatonic.
The ID tag discovered by researcher Bob Neyland has local historians so excited, they called in State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni.
The discovery also raises the question of why a Union soldier's ID tag was found on a Confederate sub.
The hope is Bellantoni can arrange the exhumation of Chamberlin's grave at Old Westfield Cemetery to provide clues as to how his identification tag ended up in the submarine's wreckage.
"What we want to do is get him off the hook -- that he didn't die on the Hunley," Ledogar said while standing next to Chamberlin's grave Friday. "We want to put closure on this."
Immediately after the news of the discovery broke, Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. researchers plunged into dusty books and old newspapers in search of the truth of Ezra Chamberlin's demise.
What they ended up with, however, were more questions.
"We kept coming up with the same question: 'Is he or is he not buried there,'" Ledogar said.
Ledogar has talked with officials at the South Carolina State Historical Archives, where the ID tag is, to try and determine possible scenarios. Among them:
Chamberlin was a defector to the Confederate side and was serving aboard the Hunley.
He was a prisoner of war and forced to serve on the Hunley because of the danger of submarine warfare at the time.
He was a spy for the Union looking to sabotage the Hunley.
Chamberlin was killed July 11, 1863, at the battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. A Confederate soldier took his ID tag as a souvenir, wearing it around his neck when the submariner died aboard the Hunley, which ank after successfully sinking a Union blockade ship.
Ledogar said he believes the last scenario most likely happened, especially since records indicate a Hunley Confederate crewman was on the same battlefield where Chamberlin reportedly died.
What isn't known, however, is whether Chamberlin's remains made it back to Killingly. If they did, Ledogar said he believes the case will be closed and Chamberlin never was aboard the ship.
One thing certain is Ledogar wants to get the ID tag back to Killingly. He said he will talk to South Carolina officials about that.
"It should be sent home to where it belongs," he said.
A little history
Meanwhile, Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. President Natalie Coolidge and society researcher Marilyn Labbe are studying the Hunley and the battle that claimed Chamberlin's life.
No matter where Chamberlin died, it probably was far from pleasant.
Coolidge said the Hunley's story is fascinating, as it chronicles a desperate South's plight to break the Union blockade at Charlestown toward the end of the war.
The ship was so risky, dozens of sailors drowned during training runs because it simply filled with water, she said.
Worse, however, was the air quality, since the Civil War predated any technology allowing oxygen storage.
"It was an experimental submarine and it was the first one to prove the viability of submarine warfare," Coolidge said. "They had to have a candle to detect when the air was bad. If it went out, they had to come up."
The Battle of Fort Wagner wasn't much better.
Citing old editions of the Windham County Transcript and several compilations of local Civil War veterans, Coolidge and company deduced Chamberlin likely was killed at that South Carolina battle.
According to an 1889 government compilation, the Battle of Fort Wagner was a nighttime attack in which the Union -- outnumbered five to one -- still attempted an attack at the Confederate fort.
Despite that, Chamberlin's unit -- Company K of the 7th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry -- held its ground before retreating two miles to the nearby beaches.
The fact somebody local is linked to such an historic moment has the local historical society excited.
And any publicity for the Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc., they say, is just as exhilarating.
"Every day, we compile and preserve records here. And if we get a little deviation that's exciting, it helps us out," Ledogar said. "It's our only pay."
Staffed by volunteers, the society has a museum full of stories like Chamberlin's at 196 Main St., inside the old library building.
For these volunteers, the quest for knowledge, especially of the local variety, is as fulfilling as a paycheck.
"We were enthusiastic because it was something I didn't know about," Coolidge said. "So when we started digging into history books, it gave me a lot of information that I didn't know."
On Apr. 27, 2001, a team of researchers who are studying the remains of the Confederate Submarine, The Hunley, announced that they had found an identification tag associated with human remains, and the tag was that of a Union soldier! The soldier was Ezra Chamberlin, who was a volunteer in the Connecticut 7th Regiment.
The H.L. Hunley was a submarine, used by the Confederate military off the coast of Charleston during the Civil War. In an attack on the Union warship Housatonic, the H.L. Hunley sank off of Charleston on Feb. 17, 1864 (Hunley), where it remained until finally recovered on Aug. 8, 2000. During the following excavation efforts (still ongoing), the ID tag of Union soldier Ezra Chamberlin was found on the Hunley-- though Chamberlin was reported to have been killed in a battle at Fort Wagner, on July 11, 1863! In fact, Chamberlin's grave can be found in northeastern CT (in a cemetery in Killingly), where his remains were to have been burried at least a year after his death.
Further facts about the circumstances of Chamberlin's death, and the presence of his dogtag on the Hunley remain to be uncovered.
By Margaret M. Weaver and Natalie L. Coolidge
At the end of April 2001 the telephone at the Killingly Historical Center began to ring off the wall. It started with a call from several newspapers telling us there was a story on the Associated Press Newswire Service stating an identification tag of a Killingly soldier had been found aboard a sunken Confederate submarine in Charleston, SC.
Thus began the mystery and the search for answers as to why the dog tag of a Union soldier, Ezra Chamberlin, was on board the Confederate submarine, "H. L. Hunley," which sank in Charleston Harbor February 17, 1864, after ramming an explosive charge into the Union blockade ship "Housatonic" that sank it. The Hunley had been discovered in 1995 by Clive Cussler's National Underwater Agency (NUMA) and raised from the bottom of the harbor on August 8, 2000.
The mystery deepened even more because we knew that Ezra was reported "killed" at the battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor on July 11, 1863. His body was never returned to his hometown in Killingly for burial. Probably his death was confirmed to his grieving parents by local boys returning home from the battle.
One other important artifact was found in 2000 during the excavation of the H. L. Hunley. A $20 gold piece minted in 1860 was discovered next to the remains of Lt. George Dixon. It was deeply indented from the impact of a bullet and inscribed with the following words:
April 6, 1862
My life Preserver
G. E. D.
Lt. Dixon, who commanded the Hunley on its historic mission, was the center of an oral legend that emerged during the Civil War. The legend told the story of a gold coin Dixon was given as a good luck charm by his sweetheart when he left home to go to war. In 1862, during the Battle of Shiloh, Dixon was shot. According to legend, the bullet struck the gold coin in Dixon's trousers and saved his life, leaving a deep impression on the coin's surface.
The H. L. Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship, has been the subject of international attention as well as locally here in Killingly. It is on exhibit at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, SC. In making the announcement that the gold coin as well as the copper medallion would be part of a permanent exhibit beginning in mid November 2002, the following comment was made. "The submarine itself is a technological marvel that symbolizes the incredible human ingenuity required to build it, to recover it and to conserve it. The Union ID tag represents the tragic side of the war. And now we have the gold coin, which symbolizes a love story that touches the heart of anyone who gazes upon it."
The coin-sized medallion is housed in an argon-filled display case designed to halt corrosion. The medallion, about the size of a Sacagawea dollar coin, is stamped with Chamberlin's name and his Connecticut infantry group. The identification tag was privately printed - the U.S. military didn't issue official dog tags until the 20th century.
In the months since the excavation of the confederate submarine ended, forensic scientists and genealogists have been working to reconstruct the lives of the eight men found inside. Their trail is not easy to follow. There are no diaries, no family histories-not even death certificates. Mostly their stories are hidden in details, a chip on a tooth, an enlistment paper. But slowly coming into focus is a portrait of men caught up in turbulent times, marching toward their common fate as crew of the world's first successful attack sub. These men came together on Sullivan's Island February 17, 1864, loaded up in their fish-boat one last time, sank the USS Housatonic and then disappeared for more than a century.
C. F. Carlson, the last man to join the final crew, had been a privateer and blockade-runner in the early days of the war. As the Union blockade became more efficient, blockade-running became less profitable and that may be what caused Carlson to join the German Artillery unit in McClellanville.
Linda Abrams, a genealogist, suspects Carlson may be the man found in the back of the sub wearing the dog tag of Union soldier, Ezra Chamberlin. Forensic scientists have ruled out any possibility that the man wearing the identification medallion is Chamberlin. The body, thought to be Carlson, was in his mid- to late-30s whereas Chamberlain was only 24. Abrams has traced Carlson to Morris Island less than a month after Chamberlin supposedly died there. Carlson may have picked up the dog tag as a souvenir. That seems to fit on several levels. The man in the back of the sub was its first officer, who operated the sub's aft ballast tank. "Who better than a privateer helmsman, a blockade runner, to be your first officer?" Abrams says.
But to get back to Killingly's Ezra Chamberlin, the discovery of his ID tag kicked off a frenzy of activity. Who was he? Margaret Weaver, the town historian, was called upon by members of the media as well as officials in South Carolina to provide background material on this young man. Researchers in the Killingly Historical Center aided her investigation.
She was able to put together the details of his short life and to locate information on his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and uncles and aunts. Ezra's father, Elisha, was a carpenter and architect and was actively involved in the construction of many new buildings and homes in Danielson. Ezra's grandfather, Warren Chamberlin, drove a stagecoach twice weekly between Danielsonville and Willimantic during the 1840s.
When recruits were called to serve in the Civil War, Ezra enlisted in the Union Army in September, 1861, only five months after the war began. He was 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 Admiral 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. There is a marker with his name on it in the Old Westfield Cemetery, but he is not buried there. He probably was 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 140 years ago, has captured a unique place in the history of the H. L. Hunley. Many people learned a whole lot more about this particular part of the Civil War than they ever knew before and Killingly was put on the map for a short while by a young man who was born here 164 years ago.
- Research of Margaret Weaver, Killingly Municipal Historian
- Articles in The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC by Brian Hicks