Confederate States Navy sailors hoped their ship's battle flags would end up at the bottom of the Potomac River. Instead, the U.S. Navy will now display one of them in a museum -- 150 years later.
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 Petersburg had come to an end after eight months. 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, 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 then vice president of the society, Nancy Hess, was working with volunteers to update their collection registry. 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 Lieu. Ladd (13th N. Hampshire), Gen. Devens staff."
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. 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.
According to Hess, she contacted previous members about it, and learned 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. No one was able to figure out why the society was given the unique artifact. Several attempts were made to get the flag out of storage and displayed. When Hess could not 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. The director of the center recommended she contact his U.S. Navy counterpart at the Naval History and Heritage Command. In March, she received the director's long-awaited call. A month after that 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.
"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 is located on the second level of Nauticus in Norfolk, Va. Admission is free.