“In the museum business, if you are lucky, you occasionally have an opportunity to experience what we call ‘wow’ moments.” – Elizabeth A. Poulliot, HRNM Director
Timing is everything. At least in light of recent events, it is. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of two Federal Army officers, we might not have the Civil War Navy’s most recent and prized artifact, the flag of the CSS Hampton.
Richmond, Virginia: 1865
Virginia stood wounded and defeated in the last two years of war. After suffering heavy casualties throughout Grant’s Overland Campaign, Virginia’s army braced their backs to the south of Richmond at Petersburg in June 1864. To the west, Virginia’s lush and vibrant Shenandoah Valley burned, denying much needed food and supplies to the starving at Petersburg. By March 1865, the Petersburg campaign was over. One month later, approaching Federal armies captured the Confederate capitol. Richmond remained a burned-out husk of its former self. The Confederate military was gone and much of its population deserted. It seems that the war would be over. Yet victory did not come without its spoils.
In the midst of the desolation and destruction, Lieutenant William J. Ladd of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment stood alone in the deserted city Capitol. According to the History of the regiment, Ladd rode towards Rocketts landing and found a Union cavalryman. The two rowed out onto the James, where they pulled down two flags off of the CSS Hampton, one of two Maury that saw action during the American Civil War. Little did they know, the Confederates rigged the ship to explode. Minutes after they rowed back ashore, the ship went up in a fiery blaze; symbolic of the Navy’s demise and that of its most prized city.
Dayton, VA: 2011
Ladd kept the flag after the war at his home in Milton. In the 1960s, the flag made its way to Dayton, VA and into the hands of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society (HRHS). The flag that once flew defiantly against the government of the United States lay in a collections box. Nancy Hess, Vice President of the society, came across the discovery in 2011. Included with the flag was a handwritten inscription sewn onto the flag:
The flag was a terrific find. Yet it remained in extreme disrepair. The board at the HRHS decided to look for a new home for the flag, eventually reaching Captain H.J. Hendrix, Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Captain Hendrix offered to see to the flag’s conversation and care.
Dayton, VA: 2013
In front of a crowd of nearly fifty people, Captain H. J. Hendrix, NHHC Director, accepted the flag of the Hampton on behalf of the U.S. Navy. After a long journey, the flag will be preserved and displayed at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) in Norfolk, VA. Elizabeth Poulliot, HRNM Director, will gladly work with Washington, D.C. to see the flag make it to Norfolk. What better place to preserve the history of the gunboat than near the place where it was built across the Elizabeth River?
The flag is an important piece that helps us understand the importance of the Confederate Navy in Hampton Roads. Poulliot plans to “to prominently display it in our Civil War gallery.” She added that visitors will “want to learn more about the Civil War, and how the Confederacy build Maury gunboats. The acceptance of this ensign from CSS Hampton is an honor for our institution.”