Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Antietam: Macabre memento of a dead soldier

Rufus Chamberlain, a 43-year-old sergeant in Company I of the 16th Connecticut, was
mortally wounded at Antietam.  He is buried in Hillside Cemetery in Stafford, Conn.

His name is more commonly spelled Chamberlain, not Chamberlin, in records.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Reardon, New England Civil War Museum executive director)

Shortly after Rufus Chamberlain died of a wound suffered at the Battle of Antietam, a family friend made the sad 450-mile journey from Connecticut to a Maryland hamlet to retrieve the 43-year-old soldier's remains. Not only did Ashley D. Studley return with the body of the 16th Connecticut sergeant, he also took back a macabre memento to give to Chamberlain's wife:

The mangled bullet that killed her husband.

"I went into the hospital at Smoketown where Mr. Chamberlain died and made some inquiries in reference to his wound and death," noted Studley, a mill worker from Chamberlain's hometown of Stafford, Conn. "I was informed by persons employed there that Mr. Chamberlain was wounded by a ball in the knee. The ball was given to me that was extracted from his limb and I brought it home and gave it to his widow." (1)

During the Civil War, families often wanted tangible reminders of the death of a loved one -- a bloody shirt,  a piece of a uniform or even the bullet that ended a life. At the New England Civil War Museum in Rockville, Conn., the splattered sharpshooter's bullet that killed Thomas Burpee at Cold Harbor, handed down through the generations, is displayed along with a tintype and other effects of the colonel in the 21st Connecticut. The family of Union General Philip Kearny was given the bullet that killed that renowned soldier at the Battle of Chantilly, near Washington.

In this widow's pension affidavit, Ashley Studley of Stafford, Conn., recalled obtaining the 
bullet that mortally wounded Rufus Chamberlain. He gave it to Rufus' widow. 

What Amanda Chamberlain did with the bullet that killed her husband, a mill worker before the war, is lost to history.

16th Connecticut monument at Antietam.
Nearly 3,500 men in blue and gray were killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862 -- the bloodiest day in American history. But many soldiers like Rufus Chamberlain died in the days, weeks and even months after the battle -- including 16th Connecticut captain Frederick Barber of Glastonbury, 16th Connecticut privates Gideon Barnes of Burlington and Horace Lay of Hartford and 14th Connecticut private Henry Talcott of Coventry.

At Antietam, Chamberlain was shot in the right leg, probably in farmer John Otto's 40-acre cornfield, during the Ninth Corps' disastrous attack on the Confederates' right flank. Carried from the field, he was first taken to a hospital in Sharpsburg, perhaps the German Reformed Church on Main Street, where many soldiers in Chamberlain's regiment were treated. Later, he was taken to Smoketown, a non-descript speck on the map near Sharpsburg that was the site of a large Federal field hospital. Conditions there were terrible.

"This place is in a most miserable condition, the men complain very much,"a member of the Maine Soldiers Relief Agency reported in early November 1862. "The effluvia  arising from the condition of these grounds is intolerable, quite enough to make a man in perfect health sick, and how men can recover in such a place is a mystery to me."

Rufus Chamberlain Jr. in 1900.
(Photo courtesy Tad Sattler via 
Connecticut. State Library)

Private Harvey Moore of  the 16th Connecticut, who worked with Chamberlain in a mill before the war, tended to his comrade at Smoketown.

"I see him in a hospital near Sharpsburg the next Sunday after the battle," Moore noted. "He was afterwards removed to a place called Smoketown. I remained in the hospital where said Chamberlain was (for) seven days. I was in his room several times a day and frequently bathed his limb which was badly swollen and very painful." (3)

In mid-October, Chamberlain's leg was amputated above the knee joint at the Smoketown hospital. But on Oct. 21, about a week after the surgery, the "man of good habits and a true and faithful soldier," died. (3) His son, Rufus Jr., a private in Company I who served as his father's nurse, was likely by his side.

Thanks to Rufus Jr., Studley easily found Chamberlain's grave when he arrived at Smoketown.. "At the head of a grove a board was placed  with his name plainly marked on it," he noted. "The son of Mr. Chamberlain, Rufus Chamberlain, showed me the place where his father was buried." (4)

The site of Smoketown Hospital today. Rufus Chamberlain died here on Oct. 21, 1862. 
South Mountain can be seen in the distant background of the bottom photo. 
(Photos courtesy Richard Clem)

For Amanda Chamberlain, who married Rufus on Dec. 20, 1840, when she was a teenager, tragedy was  embedded in the fabric of her life. She and Rufus had six children, two of whom preceded their father in death. Rufus Jr. was captured at Plymouth, N.C.. on April 20, 1864, along with nearly the entire 16th Connecticut, and sent to a rebel prison. He was paroled in December 1864 and survived the war.

Amanda buried her husband in Hillside Cemetery in Stafford, Conn., about 30 miles northeast of Hartford. After Rufus' death, she applied for a Civil War widow's pension from the U.S. government. Her claim approved in the fall of 1862, she received $8 a month and an additional $2 a month for each of her two children under the age of 16. She continued to receive a widow's pension until her death on Oct. 9, 1876. (5)

(1) Widow's pension document, Ashley D. Studley account, Nov. 10, 1862
(2) Widow's pension document, 16th Connecticut private Harvey Moore account, Nov. 22, 1862
(3) Widow's pension document, 16th Connecticut 2nd lieutenant John M. Fisk account, June 11, 1863
(4) Widow's pension document, Ashley D. Studley account, Nov. 10, 1862
(5) Amanda Chamberlain's widow's pension file

Do you have a photo of Rufus Chamberlain? If so, e-mail me.


  1. I own a minie ball extracted from the leg of Sgt. Adam Reiling, 130th PA, 30-odd years after he was wounded at Bloody Lane. Months later, from a completely unrelated source, I obtained a copy print of him in uniform (he was only in the service a couple weeks before being wounded), as well as several views of him holding his cane dressed in G.A.R. attire. After the war, he was a prominent farmer living just south of Big Round Top on the Gettysburg Battlefield.