Ezra Chamberlin
7th Connecticut Infantry
July 11, 1863
Morris Island, South Carolina

Early in the morning, the men of Company K are roused from their sleep in the sand dunes. In the darkness, the company is ordered into formation with the rest of the companies of the 7th Connecticut. Ezra notices that most of the boys, even those who were most boisterous the day before, are now quite solemn as they line up in the morning fog. They can guess what's coming.

Lt. Colonel Rodman addresses the men. "General Strong has some words to say."

General Strong, notably wearing dry clothes, speaks: "Men, we have a job on hand. You are our forlorn hope. There are but three guns looking this way. You are to move forward, quietly, until the enemy's pickets fire. Then you are to rush in. You will have prompt support. If you fire, aim low. But don't stop to reload. Keep moving forward, trust in God, and give them the bayonet! Colonel."

Colonel Rodman now speaks again. "We, the Seventh Connecticut, have the honor of leading the charge. I pray to God to watch over us and help us achieve victory." Then he ordered, "Fix bayonets!"

Ezra hates the bayonet order and what it implies. But he is a soldier, and Fort Sumter must be retaken, and the men in Fort Wagner are in the way. He fixes his bayonet to the muzzle of his rifle. As red appears in the east with the sunrise, Ezra remembers what the sailors say: "Red sky in morning, sailors take warning." Ezra has accepted that he may die in this assault. He fingers the stamped coin hanging around his neck, reassured that it will identify his body so he can be returned to his family.

The order comes: "Forward the Seventh!"

He quickly makes his way to the front of the line, near the flagbearer. His enthusiasm for their purpose propels him forward to the best of his ability. He finds a pace and keeps it up, despite the best efforts of the sand to slow him down. Ezra and the color guard move forward. Company K is left of center, with Company B skirting the marsh on the left, and Company I on the right. Company A is at the extreme right.

Robert Knox Sneden drew several maps of Fort Wagner. At the time of creating these, he was in the Washington area, which may account for how differently they look. Sneden makes special mention of the 7th Connecticut in the fourth map.

All at once, the enemy musketeers rise above their sand dune and fire a volley. Some of the boys of the 7th are hit, and the forward movement falters a bit. Ezra breathes a sigh of relief that he wasn't hit, and fumes that he has to wait for the others to resume the advance. And knowing that all the while, the rebel fighters are reloading and readying for another volley.

Behind him, Ezra hears an officer. "Steady boys, steady. All right, boys, forward once again." Ezra and the flagbearer moved forward again, accompanied by the sound of more sand-shifting footsteps close behind.

Now the big guns of not only Wagner but also Gregg, Moultrie, and even Sumter itself, begin firing. Mighty shell bursts add to the maelstrom, the confusion, the insanity. Sand, mud, and bits of iron rain down. Ezra feels a splat on his cheek. Holding his rifle with his right, he wipes his cheek with his left. He expects to see the brown of marsh mud, but sees instead blood and the gray brain matter of some other poor Connecticut Yankee.

Over on the left, the flagbearer of Company B rushes ahead. Determined to be in the forefront, Ezra pours on extra steam. Another shell explodes ahead and to the right. Ducking his head as if in a rainstorm, Ezra pushes forward through the sandstorm.

The Confederates manning the breastworks have reloaded and they fire another musket volley, but the men in blue can not be stopped now. Ezra and his fellows clamber up and over the first sandy rampart, chasing the enemy pickets retreating through a foot-deep moat.

Ezra splashes through the moat water and then starts slogging his way up the next parapet. Nearing the crest, he steals a second to look behind him. His stomach sinks: he sees only now that he and just a few others have run too far ahead; the main body is dishearteningly far behind. "Close up! Close up!" he shouts desperately. He turns forward, noting in passing a comrade bayoneting a Confederate gunner. When his eyes face fully forward again, he beholds a rebel looking right at him over the sight of his musket. The round hole at the end of the musket's barrel flashes, and the war is over for Cousin Ezra.

Silence. Cut to black.

* * *

July 12, 1863
Morris Island, South Carolina

Red chevrons on his gray coat marked J.F. Carlsen as a corporal in the German Artillery. He'd aided in the defense of Fort Wagner on the previous days, but now he was performing a particularly sad duty. Burial detail.

"Got one here!" he shouted, as he came upon another body in blue lying in the sand. Nobody responded - everyone was plenty occupied. By this time, he'd overcome any compunction about checking pockets of the dead Yanks. If a body had money in its pockets, it would be a waste to just bury it. Yankee greenbacks were highly valued (worth ten times Confederate currency). Besides, if Carlsen didn't take it, another fellow would. And it wasn't only money that could be found on a body. Their accoutrements, ammunition, and supplies could be put to good use, and sometimes a boy might have a good item like a watch, a folding knife, a photograph of a pretty girlfriend, a Bible or other book, a newspaper, a razor... All kinds of good things could be had.

Examining this Yank, Carlsen was intrigued by the copper coin he found around the young man's neck. He took it off him and read it. "Ezra Chamberlin, 7 Reg C.T. Volunteers, entered service Sept. 6 1861." The dead Yank's name and personal data meant nothing to J.F., but the fact that the coin named a regiment they'd fought off the day before made it a most excellent war souvenir. This Connecticut Yankee would have no further need of it, he reasoned, so he put it around his own neck. Then he started to look for someone to help move the body.

* * *

A week after Ezra met his end at Fort Wagner, a second assault was made. For that story, see the movie Glory. Excellent Civil War cinema, top notch. Except for getting the attack direction backwards. In the movie, the camera faces the Atlantic, and the 54th Massachusetts attacks towards the right. On Morris Island, if you put the camera in that position, the 7th Connecticut attacked towards the left (and so did the real 54th Massachusetts). But aside from that: a stirring movie, well worth it. Too bad Ezra's not in it.

* * *

Some weeks or months later, Carlsen heard of a call for volunteers for a heroic and extremely hazardous naval mission. One odd requirement: applicants should be short and strong. "That's me," he said to himself. He volunteered and was accepted as a crewman aboard the CSS Hunley: the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. Anyway, at some point Cousin Ezra's identification coin changed hands again. Carlsen apparently gave, traded, sold, or otherwise lost the coin to Joseph Ridgaway, first officer of the Hunley. In 2001, naval archeologists recovered Cousin Ezra's yankee ID tag from around Ridgaway's neck.

Ezra's dogtag.
2001 Friends of the Hunley - National Geographic

© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.