On Dog Tags, Sunken Confederate Subs, and Graves Registration

Share

I am returning in this post to a topic covered previously here on the discovery and recovery of the Confederate submarine, CSS H. L. Hunley, found in 1995 in the waters off Charleston, S.C. The Friends of the Hunley chronicled the archaeological discovery process which uncovered something very interesting. It was the “ID Tag” of Ezra Chamberlin. This created somewhat of a mystery because Ezra was a member of the infantry of the Union Army. What would the ID Tag of a Union soldier be doing in a sunken Confederate submarine?

Research by forensic genealogist Linda Abrams provided a plausible solution to the mystery as outlined in a story on the Friends of Hunley site. It’s a good read. The suggestion is that Chamberlin died at the Battle of Fort Wagner, a.k.a. the First Assault on Morris Island. His body was likely ransacked by Confederate troops and his ID medallion taken as a souvenir. This was common practice on both sides.

Interestingly, the remains of the Hunley crewman wearing Chamberlin’s medallion were identified to be those of Confederate Corporal J. F. Carlsen who can be placed at Morris Island during the Union’s second attack. His facial reconstruction is available at the link above. Whether he took the medallion from Chamberlin’s body or traded for it is unknown.

That Civil War soldiers wore identification medallions (Dog tags) like the one belonging to Private Chamberlin was news to me. My research confirmed that they were not issued by either government. According to an essay by Edward Steere posted on the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center, there were no graves registration units to formally identify and bury battle dead. “Burial was, of necessity, performed by fatigue parties from the line. … Little or no provision could be made for any systematic interment of remains during a campaign of rapid movement.” Burying the dead at Fredericksburg, Va., after the Wilderness Campaign, May 1864. Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 111-B-4817.

As in any war, the bodies of the victors were treated better than those of the vanquished. It is well known that battle dead in the Civil War were often buried in pits or unmarked graves. Use of coffins, like those pictured here at Fredricksburg after the Wilderness Campaign, was unusual.

Men began to take responsibility for their own identification. Those of means could order ornate identification medals or pins. Some purchased less expensive medallions from sutlers, merchants following the armies. Made from coins or other metallic disks, sutlers charged a small fee for stamping into the metal a soldier’s name and unit among other things. Some men without other identification simply wrote their names on paper and pinned it to their shirt prior to going into battle. Shockingly, Steere estimates that only 30 percent of soldiers who died in the Civil War were identified.

Of additional interest:

  • Mike Brown has an excellent history of Civil War Dog Tags and pictures of several varieties on his website.
  • Replica ID tags can be purchased from Civil War memorabilia shops like Memorial Brass.
  • The modern process for embalming began during the Civil War as grieving families wanted to have the the bodies of their oved ones returned home for burial.

__________________________
Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

tools