DAYTON, Va. -- A Confederate flag finished a nearly 150-year journey as it traded hands from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society (HRHS) to Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) during a ceremony at the society's building in Dayton, Va., July 31. Capt. Henry Hendrix, NHHC's director, accepted the flag which will be preserved and displayed in one of the U.S. Navy's museums. The flag's journey to Washington, D.C. began during the Civil War in 1865.
It was early morning as Lt. William Ladd rode his horse into a nearly deserted Richmond, Va. The siege of the Petersburg had come to an end after eight months, signifying an end to the war that had divided America. With the Confederate capital of Richmond captured, the last hopes of the rebel army vanished and the army and populace of the city had scattered. It was while investigating the city that Ladd observed a Confederate ship flying their colors.
"I was in the Capitol grounds as early as 5:30 am," wrote Ladd, in the History of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment. "I saw no flag on the Capitol at that time. After looking about the grounds and vicinity for a few minutes, and realizing I was alone in the city, I rode back towards Rocketts, and when near there met a white Union cavalryman - the first Union soldier I had seen in Richmond that morning. We tied our horses, took a skiff and rowed out to a rebel war ship in the James, and captured two Confederate flags then flying upon her. I pulled down the larger flag, the cavalryman the smaller one, and we rolled them up and tied them to our saddles." Unknown to Ladd, the Confederates had previously rigged the ship, Confederate States Ship (CSS) Hampton, to explode, denying the Union Army its capture. Soon after he and the cavalryman left with their captured flags, the ship was rocked by an explosion and slowly sank into the waters of the Potomac.
After the war, Ladd kept the flag in his residence, where it remained for years.
Fast forward to 2011. On a shelf in a Dayton, Va. building belonging to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, sat an archival collection box. The vice president of the society was working with volunteers to update their collection registry. As she went through the boxes she made an astounding discovery, a Confederate flag. A handwritten (note?) sewn onto it read, "That of Confed gun boat Hampton burnt in James River at the taking of Richmond. The flag was taken from the burning ship by Liet. Ladd (13th N. Hampshire), Gen. Devens staff." "I was surprised and amazed when I saw that we had such a rare, unique article in our collections," said Nancy Hess, now former vice president of the society.
Her unearthing of the flag started an 18-month hunt for both clues of its origin and, ultimately, a place where the society knew it would receive proper care. After finding the flag, Hess was curious. She asked a former president of the society about it. She learned that the flag had been a part of their collection for decades but little was known about why the flag was part of their holdings. Hess found some handwritten notes that recorded the flag being added to their collections in the 1960s. The society, which had moved several times since the 1960s, did not have any administrative records of the flag. It was on some inventories from 1982 and there was a photo of the flag taken sometime between 1978 and 1988.
The flag remained a bit of a mystery through the years. According to Hess, she contacted previous members about it, and she learned that the flag was mailed to the society from a law firm settling the estate of a client. When a former society president went to a Massachusetts courthouse to look up the will in 2000, he found no mention of the flag or its disposition. Although the flag was researched by several members of the society, none were able to figure out why the society was given the unique artifact, and several attempts were made to get the flag out of storage and displayed. But the efforts were futile and the flag remained in storage. Finally Hess took action, first writing museums about the flag, asking for someone to take and conserve it. When she unable to find a museum that would conserve and display it, she started calling. Earlier this year, Hess contacted the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Retired Col. Robert Dalessandro, the director of the center, recommended she contact NHHC's director, Capt. Henry Hendrix. In March she received the long-awaited call from Hendrix, and an answer to her hopes to find a proper resting place for the flag. "We were contacted by Mrs. Hess and told the amazing story about the Confederate flag. I couldn't let this incredible opportunity to recognize our naval heritage slip by, especially during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. I told her NHHC would indeed be interested in the society's storied flag," Hendrix said. A month later in Dayton, Hess met with Becky Poulliot, executive director of NHHC's Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Va. Poulliot inspected the flag, listened to the society's concerns about it and knew she wanted to have it. "In the museum business, if you are lucky, you occasionally have an opportunity to experience what we call 'wow' moments," Poulliot said. "The minute I saw the ensign from CSS Hampton was one of those moments for a variety of reasons. First, the flag has an authentic provenance of a pivotal point in American history -- the fall of Richmond. Secondly, according to our staff research, it is the only known flag in existence that flew from a Maury gunboat. That gunboat was built across the Elizabeth River from our museum. So, it is irreplaceable. Lastly, this ensign fills an important gap regarding the material culture of the Confederate Navy in Hampton Roads." As the director accepted the gift, he presented the flag to Poulliot for her to begin the conservation process to make the flag ready to become part of the museum.
"We plan to prominently display it in our Civil War gallery," Poulliot said. "I assure you that it will stop people in their tracks. They will want to learn more about the Civil War, and how the Confederacy built Maury gunboats. The acceptance of this ensign from CSS Hampton is an honor for our institution." The Hampton Roads Naval Museum introduces visitors to more than 234 years of U.S. Naval history in Hampton Roads, Virginia. One of nine officially operated U.S. Navy museums, reporting to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the museum houses a rich collection of authentic uniforms, weaponry, underwater artifacts, detailed ship models and artwork. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum is located on the second level of Nauticus in Norfolk, Va. Admission is free.