Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

On Dog Tags, Sunken Confederate Subs, and Graves Registration

with 3 comments

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


3 Responses

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  1. This is great! Interesting and thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for providing it.


    March 10, 2008 at 9:52 am

  2. this is a very good site. i have recently dug a union soldiers i d tag in petersburg va. its not the stamped variety,it has been what looks to be professionally engraved on the face side of a seated liberty silver quarter,the reverse side with eagle is in great shape and the face with the soldiers name in exquisite text with his company “G”, and regiment “N.Y.M.R” ,which means new york mounted rifles. has vet. V. at the bottom declaring his veteran status,he was formerly a member of “THE TENTH LEGION” also known as the 56th new york volunteer infantry. and a set of cross sabres with remarkable detail and likeness,stand bold in the center of this tag. there are other accents to the tag like dimpled border,accent designs,and three small stars are also engraved on various areas of the soldier side of this coin. he enlisted sept 10,1861 at the age of 25 as a private.on may 31st 1862 ,he was wounded at the battle of fair oaks, va. later discharged on sept 24th,1863 at beauford s.c. for wounds.re-enlisted on jan 1st 1864 as a corporal in the new york mounted riflemen(only offered to veteran cavalrymen and sharpshooters,known as “THE GOVERNORS GUARD”), returned to duty in petersburg,va .about 30 miles south of the fair oaks site he was wounded 2 years earlier. participated in “THE PETRSBURG SEIGE” and other conflicts like,HATCHERS RUN AND THE BATTLE OF FIVE FORKS”. he was mustered out on aug 10th,1865 with company at petersburg.where i dug the tag. there is a lot of cool info on him and the tag has been called a true prize by many veteran relic hunters and appraisers. email me for a pic

    brian an

    May 23, 2008 at 10:18 pm

  3. Hey Brian,
    Thanks for your comment. What an interesting find! I’ll shoot you a note for a picture.


    Rene Tyree

    May 25, 2008 at 11:12 am

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