Posted: Thursday, April 3, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 12:43 pm, Thu Apr 3, 2014.
On the morning of April 3, 1865, Union troops entered the city of Richmond, then capital of the Confederate States of America. Richmond had become the holy grail of the Union war effort, in a civil war between Americans of Northern and Southern persuasions that would claim an estimated 620,000 combatants who would give their lives in the line of duty.
Born and raised a Northerner from a multiracial family, I was taught in school to see the Civil War from the perspective of the North fighting to end slavery and restoring the Union. Southerners and those who would fight for the Confederate cause were on the wrong side of morality and history. As I matured and exposed myself to the complexities of the time and its issues, I learned more about my family’s involvement on both sides and have come to appreciate that the war might have been a very necessary and costly prerequisite for America to one day live up to its ideals that “all men are created equal.”
One family member who deserves special mention is my maternal great-grandfather, Richard Gill Forrester, who is buried at the historic Island Cemetery in Newport, R.I. Forrester was part of one of Richmond’s prominent free families of color before the Civil War. He was laid to rest in Newport on Nov. 15, 1909, with military honors by the Lawton and Warren Post No. 5 of the Grand Army of the Republic.
His front-page obituary in the New York Age, the leading African-American newspaper of the day, was quoted as saying, “There passed away a soldier who came into prominence by gaining the distinction of being the first man who hoisted the Union flag in Richmond after the Civil War.” Ironically, Forrester was not a member of either the Union or the Confederate armies, but rather a young boy of 13 who committed a great act of selflessness and courage.
One of the first of many Union troops to enter Richmond during the early hours of April 3 was a company of men with the Thirteenth New Hampshire Regiment. Our family owns an original printing of the “Thirteenth Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion” by S. Millet Thompson, an officer with the regiment, signed by members of the regiment and presented to my great-grandfather in 1888. The book contains a vivid and detailed account of the events of April 3, 1865, at the fall of the Confederate capital.
“…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 veterans who buried him honored him as a soldier for his heroic deed, but more remarkable is the why and how a boy of color would be moved to rescue and replace the federal flag on top of the building that had served as the capital of the Confederate States of America during a time in our country when nearly all persons of African heritage were seen as noncitizens. His actions would provide no future guarantee of civil liberties for himself and family. His daring efforts were well before the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution and the Civil Rights Act that required another hundred years of reconstruction and reconciliation before becoming law in 1964.
I have come to believe Forrester took this action because, although a Virginian, he believed the state was part of an America that, while not perfect, was and will always be a country of opportunity for all of its people — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nation of origin. And after four years of blood and war, young Forrester and the country were looking for the symbol of a unified America: our American flag.