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Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Flag of the CSS Hampton Returns Home

Blog #49.  April 26, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins

“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

On the evening April 22nd 2015 I was in attendance at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum to witness the return home of the flag that flew from the Confederate States Ship – CSS Hampton.  We built the Maury style gunboat CSS Hampton here at the Gosport Navy Yard in 1862, it is a part of our local heritage.  As we close out a four year remembrance – The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial 1861-1865, what better place than about a mile from the old Gosport shipyard to celebrate a rare relic’s return home.

To have an actual surviving item with direct ties to the Confederate Gosport Navy Yard is indeed rare.  This flag represents a little known story of the various small gunboats built at Gosport in 1862 after the famous CSS Virginia is built.  The flag also documents the eventual fate of CSS Hampton at the fall of Richmond in 1865.

A flag invokes strong feelings of both honor and just cause and when placed in theater it is what makes the war machine function; one side against the other - it is what is fought for and what is fought against.  Looking back with historical context this is a story of both luck and timing for the artifact itself.  Most cloth relics never survive the elements over time but against all odds this one did.  This flag not only wraps itself with mysteries only known now to the wind but also shares many documented twist and turns in its long journey back home.

 Photo #1 ~ CSS Hampton Flag at Dayton Virginia
(Photo courtesy of Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Blog - August 2, 2013)

Now how did this naval flag get into a local museum’s collection in the town of Dayton Virginia, west of the Shenandoah National Park?  Again I refer to the Navy’s Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Blog - August 2, 2013 that I present here in total as it tells the story the best:
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 built Maury gunboats.  The acceptance of this ensign from CSS Hampton is an honor for our institution.”
And now some additional background what it was like here at Gosport in 1862.  Matthew Fontaine Maury, one of the Confederate Navy’s foremost nautical scientists (Maury High School in Norfolk, Virginia is named for him) was a proponent of building a fleet of gunboats to swarm like bees to sting the Union warships to death.  Other than the one additional ironsides being the CSS Richmond (CSS Virginia II) that is launched here in 1862 we find that the Confederates have multiple launching ways at Gosport and become busy constructing the Maury gunboats.  It is a program that is dashed and doomed from the start after the Battle of Hampton Roads outcome as wooden shipbuilding soon shall come to a quick end but faced with desperate times Confederate Gosport presses on regardless. 

Only the CSS Nansemond and CSS Hampton each being 80 tons, wooden hull, steam screw with two guns were in the water and began service also in 1862 along with the CSS Richmond before the Confederates abandon and burn the yard on May 10, 1862.  Five uncompleted ships under the supervision of John Luke Porter are burned on the stocks to prevent capture at Gosport being the: Norfolk, Portsmouth, Escambia, Elizabeth and the Yadkin.
Photo #2 ~ CSS Nansemond
(Photo courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

So how close was this flag to becoming just a memory?  Again I defer to my friends at the Navy with their prior research as the following puts things in perspective:

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 James River.
On the night of April 22, 2015 we are treated to a lecture by Mr. Kenneth D. Alford that shares information about nautical and battle flags found while writing his recent book – Civil War Museum Treasures: Outstanding Artifacts and the Stories Behind Them.  Also in attendance is Nancy Hess from The Heritage Museum, Volunteer and Board Member.  Standing with them in the center is Elizabeth A. Poulliot, Hampton Roads Naval Museum Director.  The time had come to unveil and acknowledge the return of the CSS Hampton flag to a permanent location both for public display and education purposes.  The flag of the CSS Hampton returns home to the same riverfront where it last sailed 153 years prior.  

Photo #3 ~ CSS Hampton Flag at HRNM   
Unveiling on April 22, 2015
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

And of course as this was a public event I took the opportunity to capture an image of a great friend of mine, Mr. Stephen Milner, a prior long time Public Affairs Officer at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  I teased with him later when we looked at the picture I had taken as he was holding his hat in such a way that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard showed very well, its great naval tradition continues.  Also I mentioned that it was unfortunate that over time he has lost a bit of hair, the same as over time the CSS Hampton flag had lost some of its stars but in the end both of them are survivors.

Photo #4 ~ CSS Hampton Flag at HRNM  
Unveiling on April 22, 2015
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
The historical plaque within the display case reads as follows below:

Photo #5 ~ CSS Hampton Flag Plaque at HRNM  
Unveiling on April 22, 2015
(Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

 I invite you to visit the Hampton Roads Naval Museum located at - One Waterside Drive in Norfolk, Virginia because not only is it home to a world class Civil War gallery but the entire museum pays honor to the Navy with a special emphasis on this location (Hampton Roads) including our Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia and the Norfolk Naval Station located in Norfolk, Virginia.  A link for the HRNM website is found here:

Should you wish to join the museum’s foundation and find out how to get your own quarterly edition of the Daybook (next month in May 2015 has more on the CSS Hampton) or volunteer your services please phone directly to Elizabeth (Becky) Poulliot, Hampton Roads Naval Museum Director at (757) 322-2990.

Remember, naval history is all around us here in eastern Virginia, go visit it today because –history matters”.

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