Curious Find on Confederate Sub Links North and South
National Geographic News
|April 27, 2001|
A "dog tag" worn by a Union soldier for identification was discovered inside the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, archaeologists said Friday.
The find baffles researchers. Was it a war souvenir? Or did it belong to a defector or a spy? Perhaps a Union soldier asked a Confederate opponent on the battlefield to take the tag and send it to his family as an indication of his death. Hunley researchers say all these scenarios are possible.
The Hunley sank on February 17, 1864, when it attacked the Union's Housatonic, becoming the first submarine to sink a warship.
The sub and its crew of nine never returned from the mission. The remains of the sub were found 131 years later, in May 1995, in the mud of Charleston Harbor, and were raised in August 2000. Since then, scientists have been painstakingly recovering the bones of the crew and other artifacts from the sludge-filled submarine hull.
At a news conference in Charleston on Friday, scientists said the name on the Union dog tag is Ezra Chamberlin. Records indicate he enlisted in the Union Army on September 6, 1861, and was a member of Company K, 7th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers.
Hunley researchers said war records show that Chamberlin died on July 11, 1863, in the Battle of Fort Wagner, also known as the First Assault on Morris Island. Documents show that there is a grave and headstone for Ezra Chamberlin located in Killingly, Connecticut.
Tag Found With Skull
The dog tag appears to be made of copper and was found along with the the skull of a crew member. "It would appear that the sailor was wearing the tag around his neck," said project director Robert Neyland.
The German Light Artillery, which was a military unit of Corporal C. F. Carlson, a Hunley crew member, played a prominent role in the Battle of Fort Wagner, where Chamberlin died. Hunley scientists have not determined that the body on which the tag was found is that of Carlson.
The Hunley crew consisted of several diverse Confederate units. "It is unknown at this time whether any other Hunley crew members were at the Battle of Fort Wagner," researchers said.
"As the excavation of the Hunley continues, further mysteries are revealed which ask even larger questions than were asked before the Hunley's recovery," said Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley. The nonprofit group was formed to support the Hunley Commission, which was created by the State of South Carolina to acquire, recover, and preserve the H.L. Hunley submarine for public display.
Four Possible Scenarios
The researchers have proposed four scenarios for how the Union tag may have come to be found on a Confederate vessel, although "nothing can be confirmed at this time":
The identification tag may have been a souvenir from the Battle of Fort Wagner. It was common during war times for soldiers to collect articles from a battleground.
Ezra Chamberlin may have been a Union soldier who defected to the Confederacy.
Ezra Chamberlin may have been a spy trying to subvert the mission of the Hunley.
Ezra Chamberlin's last act on the battlefield may have been a request for someone to take his identification tag and return it to his family to notify them of his death.
South Carolina State Senator Glenn McConnell, chair of the Hunley Commission said the find "creates more mysteries than answers." McConnell and Randy Burbage, a member of the commission, said in a statement Friday: "There is a stone at Bethany Cemetery in memory of C. F. Carlson. If that is an empty grave under a memory stone, could not that also be the case with the grave of Ezra Chamberlin in Killingly, Connecticut?"
McConnell and Burbage said that while soldiers collected items of battle, taking the identification tag of another soldier was not common because men on both sides of the war were concerned about dying with no way of having their remains identified and sent home. "They would have been reluctant to remove the tag from a dead soldier," said McConnell.
"If the tag was removed, how did they later identify the remains of Ezra Chamberlin to bury him in Killingly, Connecticut?" McConnell and Burbage wondered. "It would be years after 1863 before the dead buried at Battery Wagner were exhumed and moved," they note. "What occurred at Battery Wagner on July 11, 1863, may have been more than a clash of sides. Could it have been a meeting of friends or a change of heart?"
McConnell and Burbage said that additional research of prison records and death records may help solve the puzzle as to why Chamberlin's tag was on board. "Was the tag, in fact, on someone else or on Chamberlin himself?" they ask.
"There at least exists the possibility that another of this crew is like James A. Wicks. He, in the course of battle, went from blue to gray [from Union to Confederate]. The heroic epic of the final voyage of the Hunley grows in complexity rather than in answers."
Friends of the Hunley said in a news statement that identification tags during the Civil War were created only at a soldier's own initiative. Some were fashioned of wood and hung on a string around a soldier's neck.
The group notes that private vendors, known as "sutlers," followed troops and offered identification disks for sale just prior to battles. No official military identification tags were issued by the government until World War I in 1913.
The archaeologists also have discovered a Union Infantry button inside the submarine. According to participants in the project, such buttons have been recovered from other Civil War battlefields. Confederate soldiers had limited supplies, especially of clothing, and it was common for them to collect and wear discarded or captured Union clothing and equipment. "To date, the buttons recovered from the Hunley submarine as a whole represent a diverse collection of both Confederate and Union military units."
The Hunley project is funded in part by the National Geographic Society.
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