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My Turn: How Virginia got its American flag back

I read with great interest the Monitor’s July 1 editorial regarding Civil War memory and race (“On a critical national anniversary, race remains an uneasy topic”). My ancestors were part of a large and active free family of color in Richmond, Va., before and after the Civil War. Today, we have extensive collections of rare documents, artifacts and books from the era, but there has been little interest in this part of American history.

One rare item of interest to our New Hampshire friends to the North depicts one of the most important events of the war. Our family owns an original printing of the Thirteenth Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 book by S. Millet Thompson, an officer with the regiment.

The book, signed by members of the regiment, was presented to my great-grandfather in 1888 at an annual Civil War reunion in New York City. Thompson provides a vivid and detailed account of the events of April 1865 at the fall of the Confederate capital. The fleeing Confederates set fire to several warehouses, and the fire got out of hand, burning and destroying large parts of the city. An entry in the book states:

“The first detachment of Union troops to enter the city of Richmond on the third of April, 1865, was my detachment, the pickets of the First Brigade. There was no flag on the roof of the capitol when I entered the grounds, but within a few minutes it suddenly appeared on the flagstaff on the roof, and immediately afterward I had a conversation with the man who raised it. He was a light colored boy named Richard G. Forrester, living on the corner of College and Marshall. When the State of Virginia passed the ordinance of secession, he was a page or errand boy employed in the capitol. The secessionists tore down the flag and threw it among some rubbish in the eaves at the top of the building. At the first convenient opportunity, he rolled the flag in a bundle, carried it to his home and placed it in his bed, where he slept on it nightly since that time. This morning, he said, as soon as he dared after the Confederates had left the city, he drew the old flag from its hiding place, ran to the capitol with it, mounted to the top and ran the flag up the flagstaff. This was the first flag hoisted in Richmond after its evacuation by the Confederates.”

The history of persons of color during the time of the Civil War is well documented and simply needs an interest from leading historical institutions, and even prominent newspapers, to demonstrate the willingness to tell the story of all of us to really understand the full history of America.

(Keith W. Stokes lives in Newport, R.I.)

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