Most of the residents as well as the army had fled Richmond when the first Union officer rode into the deserted city on the morning of April 3, 1865. Lt. William Ladd saw no Confederate flags on display except for two on a gunboat anchored in the James River. Joined by a cavalry soldier, the two rowed out in a skiff to the CSS Hampton and took the flags as mementoes.
His flag went home with Ladd to Milton, Mass., where it appears to have remained for about a century. Sometime in the 1960s, the 68-by-35-inch flag was sent to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society in Virginia, where it was displayed for a few years and then tucked away. In 2011, it showed up again when society volunteers were checking the contents of a storage area.
Nancy Hess, the group’s vice president at the time, began two years of research into the background of the flag. The society decided it needed to arrange for the flag’s conservation, even with some mystery remaining about why it came to the society.
This week, during a brief ceremony at the society’s headquarters, the fragile flag was given to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum , which has agreed to conserve it and put it on display. The society could not afford to conserve the flag on its own.
No one knows now why the flag was given to the society a half-century ago. The group moved several times and records may have been lost. What they did know was when and how the flag left Virginia, because sewn into the flag was a handwritten note that read: “Flag of the 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) of Gen Devens staff.”
Unknown to Ladd and his companion, the departing Confederates had rigged the ship to explode so the Union could not make use of it. The explosion, which sent the ship to the bottom of the James, actually occurred well after the two men had tied the flags to their saddles and departed.