One the most interesting stories from my family tree is Cousin Ezra's. He's a very distant cousin, I admit (7th cousin 3 times removed); a closer cousin is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (5th cousin 4 times removed - not a lot closer). But while plenty of people have heard of the Hero of Little Round Top, hardly anybody knows about Cousin Ezra. ...At least not until 2001, when his name suddenly made the news...
Bring up ominous undersea music. Nighttime, under water, sound of muffled gurgling. And an odd metallic sound indistinct, growing more apparent. Out of the darkness, a speck of dim light appears and grows. Suddenly, a sharp metal-tipped spar thrusts into the scene, bearing an explosive warhead. Then the forward prow of a primitive submarine emerges from the darkness. It's pure steampunk construction: heavy iron, with rivets and a small conning tower. A tiny porthole on the front of the conning tower reveals itself as the source of the light. As we zoom in on the porthole, we see the eyes of a man, dimly lit by candlelight within the vessel.
Inside the submarine now, we see that the craft is powered by seven men, turning seven cranks on a central axle as they hunker in the narrow confines of the submarine (a converted steam engine boiler). The vessel is at cruising speed; the pace of the cranking is light to moderate. The vessel's commander stands in the bow to see through the conning tower porthole, and his third in command occupies the first crank.
The vessel's second in command mans the seventh crank at the aft end of the vessel, where there be controls for adjusting the water level in the aft ballast tank. As this man cranks, he keeps an eye on the captain, anticipating commands. Now he senses a change in the captain's body posture. As he listens for the order for which they've all been waiting, he unconsciously fingers the copper coin he wears around his neck. And the order comes. "Yankee warship dead ahead!" Text overlays now appear. First, the date: "February 17, 1864." Then, the place: "Charleston, South Carolina." And then: "CSS Hunley."
The view from behind the vessel now, as it cruises away from us, its propeller turning. Dramatic undersea music, up and out. Fade to black.
Okay, so you're probably wondering what that has to do with Ezra, a Connecticut Yankee. That vignette goes to the question of why Ezra's name made the news a hundred and thirty-eight years after his death. You see, it has to do with that copper coin on the neck of the sailor in the Confederate submarine. This story is not about the Hunley. This is Cousin Ezra's story, which includes the story of his dogtag.
Now we go back seven months before the Hunley scene....
Cue flashback music...
July 10, 1863
Charleston, South Carolina
It's nighttime. We are on the sea's surface this time. Many oared surf boats bobbing, filled with Connecticut Yankee soldiers, some shivering silently in the night sea breeze. Each man wears a white felt patch on his left sleeve, shaped like a four-cornered fortification. The insignia of X Corps. The boats came from the Union base on Folly Island. The target: Battery Wagner, on Morris Island.
We zoom in on one young fellow, who looks where his neighbor points. Although there is no chance whatsoever of being heard by the defenders on the island, talking out loud will earn you a painful boxing of the ears by the sergeant nevertheless. The pointing neighbor whispers, "See way over there? That's Fort Sumter."
Ezra Chamberlin asks, "That one there?"
A nod. "The place where the rebels started this damned war."
The sergeant isn't above some whispering himself. He whispers, "After Forts Wagner and Gregg fall, we will retake Fort Sumter. You can count on it."
So that's the grand plan, Ezra realizes. If we could recapture Sumter... Visions of glory burst like heavenly sunbeams in Ezra's mind. The righteousness of retaking that prize from the rebels! This is a thing very much worth fighting for. A feeling of immense pride wells up in Ezra, that he, with these bobbing boys in blue, would be part of such a momentous event. He looks around at all the boats and all the men, each one just as anxious as he to have his revenge on the South for what they did here. An irresistible invasion force! Ezra unconsciously reaches for his neck, and fingers the identification coin hanging there. He'd bought it from a sutler, who had stamped letters spelling out Ezra's name and regiment. That was back before Company K was stationed at Fort Clinch in Fernandina, Florida. Now that he thought about it, sitting in the surf boat now reminded him of that time...
Play flashback music... harps, let's say. We're going back four months...
March 29, 1863
Cumberland Sound, Georgia
Picturesque, peaceful, faraway clouds decorated the crystal-clear blue sky. A young woman, wearing a fine colorful dress with a flouncy hat and parasol, both fluttering slightly in the perfect breeze, was a passenger in a surf boat powered by Yankee infantrymen. Another young woman rode in a second boat, not far behind. They were the wife of Lieutenant Hicks (Co. B) and the wife of Captain Gray (Co. I). Around them were more boats, and more boys in blue. One of those boys was cousin Ezra. He was 5'7" tall, 23 years old.
The boats carried the soldiers' firearms, as well as picnic baskets brought by the ladies. Their direction of travel was north to Cumberland Island, Georgia, just across the Cumberland Sound from Fort Clinch. The grand mission: to hunt for pigs.
The boat ride over was smooth. After passing an abandoned lighthouse on the southern end of the island, they arrived at a dock. Everyone disembarked, men making special efforts to keep the ladies' footwear from a soaking (with no unduly familiar laying on of hands, or so it is to be expected). As the party followed a road in towards the heart of the island, a three-story brick mansion emerged through the stately trees.
"Is that it? Is that Dungeness?" asked Mrs. Hicks.
"Yes indeed, Mrs. Hicks," Captain Tourtellotte answered. "That is the house built by General Nathaniel Green after the Revolution. And another revolutionary hero, Lighthorse Harry Lee, died here."
"The father of General Robert E. Lee?"
"The very same. You know your history, ma'am! You'll see Harry Lee's tombstone right over there. It was placed by Robert E. Lee himself."
Looking at the mansion, Mrs. Gray said, "Ooh, it's so magnificent!"
Mrs. Hicks said, "But it looks rather unkempt."
"The house has been abandoned for years," the captain said.
Ezra, hearing this, asked, "Captain, I thought a Colonel Stafford lived here?" He had a particular reason for asking; we'll come to that.
"Yes, his house is a few miles that way," the captain pointed. Turning to the sergeant, he ordered, "Sergeant Benson, form a detail to stay here and protect the ladies."
Benson recognized intuitively that Tourtellotte's formality of address was a show of authority for the ladies. Acting his part, the sergeant saluted, turned, and started designating a party. Any man the sergeant picked would not be going on the hunt, but would instead be stuck here at the old house, guarding the two picnicking, flower-picking ladies. Ezra did not want that. Ezra had something else he very much wanted to do.
Ezra was luckily not in Benson's line of sight; he took the opportunity to duck behind shrubbery so he wouldn't be picked. Private Stephen Bugbee, caught in the sergeant's dragnet, tried vainly to resist. "No! I'm a good hunter! I understand pigs and I know where to find'em!" The sergeant put his nose against Bugbee's nose, and quietly said something that put an end to Bugbee's rebellion.
The ladies' picnic baskets had been installed in an ideal picnicking spot. Captain Tourtellotte started towards the hunting party, but Mrs. Gray called him back. "Captain, I will not be left with nothing more than a sergeant and some privates. You must not leave us!" The captain looked longingly at the hunting party, wanting very much to be going along. He realized fort life would become full of snubs and rancor if his fellow officers' wives were unhappy with his conduct now. He sighed and signaled that the party could proceed, go hunting pigs... and rebs.
Ezra got moving northward with the party, walking beside Dan O'Neil, the drummer. When Ezra spied a trail that went off in the direction of Colonel Stafford's plantation, Ezra headed that way.
"Ezra, where are you going?" O'Neil asked.
"You've heard of Colonel Stafford's octoroon daughters?"
"I'd like to lay eyes on them for myself, see if they're as beautiful as they say."
O'Neil's eyes lit up. "We could get in trouble."
Ezra hadn't missed O'Neil's sudden inclusion of himself in the adventure. "If they're half as beautiful as I hear, it'll be worth it."
They headed to the home of the island's only inhabitant, a wealthy plantation owner, a certain Colonel Stafford. The good colonel, whose rank predated the Civil War, tried to maintain a neutral stance, since his island was frequently visited by both Yanks and Rebs. It was said that the colonel had married a beautiful quadroon slave, but in reality, "married" was a polite fiction. Their union had produced several daughters. Those Stafford girls were famous thereabouts for their exotic beauty. While most white boys would not have given a black girl a second look, octoroons were an entirely different matter. Yanks and rebs alike often came a-callin' on the famous “yellow roses.” Ezra wanted to see for himself, make his own judgment on whether a girl with just a little bit of Africa in her could look pretty to white eyes. Hearing is one thing, but it's got nothing on seeing.
When Ezra and O'Neil came to the house, a stately mansion in better condition than the old revolutionary house near the dock, the boys clumped up the stairs to the portico and knocked on the door. "Smile," Ezra coached O'Neil. Ezra put his rifle butt on the porch floor. "Look friendly."
A woman answered the door. She was fairly good-looking, but darker-skinned and older than Ezra had expected from what he had heard. She was also much better dressed than Ezra would have expected, for a slave. Her facial expression betrayed a certain amount of wariness. Who wouldn't be wary, finding two armed soldiers knocking at your door? Seeing their non-threatening postures, she acted guardedly friendly. "Is there something I can do for you soldiers?"
Unsure if the woman was the mother of the Stafford girls, Ezra decided to pour on the charm. He took off his kepi as he spoke.
"Good day, Ma'am. My name is Ezra, and this is..." He nudged O'Neil.
"My name is Dan. How do you do, Ma'am."
The woman was disarmed by this effusive show of manners from whites. She almost smiled. "Yes?"
Some gunshots could be heard off a ways. The woman asked, "That you boys? Huntin' pigs?" The boys nodded. "What you boys want?"
Ezra put on an aw shucks smile. "Well, Ma'am, I guess honesty is the best policy. We've heard tales of Colonel Stafford's beautiful daughters, and at risk of being a little forward, we've come to pay our respects."
The almost-smile on the woman's face got decidedly frosty then. "Oh, I see. Well. Sorry to disappoint you boys, but the girls and Miss Zabette, that's their mother, they're all in Connecticut."
Ezra was disappointed the girls were not present, but surprised to hear where the girls were. "Connecticut? Why, that's where we're from! See?" He pointed to the brass letters CT atop his kepi. Then he realized a slave might not know how to read letters. "Which town in Connecticut?"
The lady seemed to have lost interest in the conversation. "I believe it sounds like 'Rotten'?"
"Oh, Groton! Sure, I know the place."
"Ain't that a coincidence."
Ezra bravely charged on. "How long you expecting them to be away, ma'am?"
"For the duration of the war."
Ezra's heart sank. A man's voice called from within the house. "Who is it?"
The woman turned her head and said loudly, "Some soldiers, come callin' on your daughters!"
The man asked, "Union or Confederate?"
She replied, "Union!"
The man's voice said, "Well. Tell'em..."
She interrupted, "Already told'em!" She turned to Ezra and said, "If you will excuse me, I must return to my work. Good day to you, soldiers." The lady didn't seem much interested in discussing Miss Zabette or her daughters, and politely but firmly shut the door in Ezra's face.
O'Neil commented, "Well. She seemed a bit uppity."
Ezra looked at him.
O'Neil said, "For a colored woman, she kind of looked down her noses at us. "
Looking inside himself, Ezra realized that yes, he had been stung by the colored lady's look and tone of voice. It gave him a strange feeling of discomfort. What kind of world would there be after slavery is abolished? He was fighting to abolish it, and now was seeing that there could be downsides.
As they walked down the stairs to rejoin the pig hunt, O'Neil added, "And did you hear the way she talked to her master? Like she was the lady of the house, not a slave."
Ezra and O'Neil couldn't know it, but there was a reason the lady at the door had turned frosty on mention of the colonel's daughters. It was because she herself had assumed the position formerly occupied by the colonel's daughters' mother Zabette; not only in the colonel's household, but also in his bed. She was the de facto lady of the house now.
Ezra and Dan caught up with the boys dragging pig carcasses. They managed to blend in without anyone questioning where they'd been. When the hunting party got back to Dungeness, the fellows found that the guard detail had had Rhine wine and picnic goodies. And the wind had strengthened, and the waves were getting choppy. It was a very tedious and rough ride back to the fort. Should have planned better for the return trip. Still, all in all, it had been a memorable human adventure for Ezra...
Charleston, South Carolina
Now, rocking in the boats off Morris Island four months after the pig hunt, Ezra looks landward in the dawning light. First, a sandy expanse of marsh grass. Then the rifle pits, the first manmade obstacle that would have to be overcome. Then, looking like a very long ways off, the fort itself. From this side it looks like sand was simply been piled, making artificial dunes to form the fort's walls. The dunes provide protection from bullets, but they don't look like much of a barrier for a man to climb. The real obstacle, Ezra knows, is the garrison - those rebels in the fort. They would put up a fight.
Ezra unconsciously fingers the identification coin again.
Suddenly, a deep boom! is heard from behind, on Folly Island. The first big shell flies on its majestic arc, high overhead. It falls down and explodes in the midst of the Confederate camp on Morris Island. The men in the boats laugh at the sight of all the rebels scrambling out of their tents, many of them still in their underwear.
"Like hornets when you disturb their nest," Ezra says.
The Confederates look to see where the shell had come from. The big gun's smoke is hard to miss. And so the blue men in boats are seen now as well. Rebels run to the battery. Others jump into the rifle pits.
Behind the boats, on the shore of Folly Island, Union sharpshooters (including three of the boys from Ezra's Company K) start firing their long rifles over the heads of the boys in the boats, endeavoring to pick off gunners as they ran from the rebel camp to the gun emplacements. Rebel riflemen sho0t back, mostly at the boys in the boats. Ezra's ears are assaulted by the big booms of the Federal guns, by the sharper reports of the sharpshooters' rifles, by the shrieking of the big shells and by the hissing, pishing, whuffling of the rifle balls.
The sounds, sights, and splashing Minié bullets unnerve everyone in the boats. Just sitting there is madness!
"Like sitting ducks," Ezra grumbles through his teeth.
As if things aren't bad enough, now the rebels' big guns start in. Enemy shells splash in near the boats; one drives in so close that Ezra feels droplets of water on his face. Horrifyingly, a Confederate shell scores a direct hit on a boat of the 6th Connecticut. It's inconceivable that many of them will survive.
After sitting there taking it for what seems an eternity, the order finally comes to take the shore. Colonel Rodman, standing in his boat, shouts, "Seventh Connecticut, man your oars and follow me!"
Ezra had been detailed a boatman. Dan O'Neil is holding his rifle for him. Ezra and the other men eagerly paddle and row across the inlet under heavy fire from the infantrymen in the rifle pits on Morris. Ezra soon learns to pace himself and work at a sustainable effort level.
Ezra’s Company K is in the center of the assault landing, along with Company A. Company B forms one flank, and Company I the other. As soon as the boats hit ground, the men all jump out, pausing barely long enough to form a coherent charge.
"Form up!" the sergeants shout, holding the men back from rushing the rifle pits. "Form up, now!" Captain Chamberlain (no relation, so far as Ezra knew) finally gives the sergeants the order to advance.
Then with a mighty shout, the boys rush the rifle pits. After sitting helplessly in boats for hours, they are like a giant clockspring, released to snap back on their attackers with unstoppable fury.
The Confederates, for their part, some infantry, some artillery, and some Navy, are not coordinated to volley, having been firing at will at the attackers and the boats, not massing fire on the attacking infantrymen. The Connecticut Yankees soon overwhelm the rifle pits, forcing the rebels back.
A cheer goes up from Folly Island, where gunners and sharpshooters are watching the action.
Ezra attains the battery of big guns at the west end of Morris Island, immediately calling to a companion, “Help me turn it!” The man puts down his rifle and sets to work helping. Immediately another and yet another join in. Their training with big guns now proves to have been well worthwhile. The gun is turned, pointed at the rebel fort, loaded, and ready to fire. Ezra looks to the other guns to see what's going on. His neighboring gun, a sergeant stands, surveying the gun placements. He nods at Ezra. The sergeant sees that a third gun is also ready and waiting for a command. The sergeant raises his arm... and is promptly taken down by a Minié ball. He sits up, painfully. Wounded, thank God, not killed (as best as Ezra can tell). Ezra raises his arm, and when he sees he has the attention of the other gunners, brings it down. "Fire!" The big gun fires, jerking dangerously. The other guns fired, and three shells arc towards Fort Wagner.
The gunners load again and fire again, several times, ducking when rifle fire and big shells cme in. Having attained the big guns, the Connecticut Yankees discontinue the forward advance and have some fun shooting the big guns.
Some boys from Company K come in. "We thought we'd see what the Johnnies had in their camp." They present foodstuffs. "Who wants breakfast?"
"You are a godsend!" Ezra says, taking some well-earned sustenance.
More Company K boys come through from the front, leading captured Rebs towards the rear. One rebel soldier grins at Ezra and his fellows: "Doggoned Yanks! Ah hope you like Morris Island as much as we did!"
"How much was that?" Ezra asks.
"Not one bit!" shouts the grinning Johnny Reb as he's led away. Ezra shakes his head. What a crazy war.
Most of the time, Ezra's attention is directed forward, at Wagner. But sometimes he looks behind, to see what kind of support was coming from the rear. Back behind the big gun emplacements, signalmen can be seen atop sand dunes, waving their signal flags back across Lighthouse Inlet farther back to Folly Island. And lots more men in blue are coming from the boat landings.
A soldier comes from the rear grinning. "You wanna hear what happened? General Strong..."
"Yes? Do tell!"
"The general, he was a little too excited about landing on Morris, so he jumps out of his boat before it touched sand. Right up to his neck he went!"
The boys laugh. The storyteller goes on. "So then they pull him out, and he takes off his boots to pour out the water. Now he's walkin' on the sand, burrs and all, in his wet stocking feet!"
More laughter. Another soldier takes up the story. "So Colonel Rodman comes up to him and says..."
The first soldier isn't about to let someone else tell the story. "Rodman says, 'General, why don'cha stand on your head and let the water pour out of your clothes too!'"
Amidst the general laughter, no pun intended, the story interloper picks up the story again. "So all the boys cheered. The general was quite a sight, trying to pluck burrs outta his socks!"
Shortly after, the men of the 6th Connecticut march in to take over. A sergeant says to the men of the 7th, "You are relieved."
The Connecticut Yankees move westward, away from the heaviest action, to find a soft safe place among the sand dunes. After a little settling-in, they lie down. Sleep can not be fought off any longer. Sand fleas and mosquitoes be damned.
* * *
© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.