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How the much-admired SC state flag came to be — a bit haphazardly

The SC General Assembly adopted the current version of South Carolina’s flag on January 28, 1861.
The SC General Assembly adopted the current version of South Carolina’s flag on January 28, 1861.

The website Supercompressor recently went to the trouble of ranking the 50 state flags.

Guess what?

They ranked South Carolina’s as the No. 1 state flag.

The Houston Press also took a shot at ranking state flags and found South Carolina’s to be fourth best, behind New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

But, for an authoritative answer as to which state has the best flag, one probably should turn to the paid members of the North American Vexillological Association, a scholarly organization dedicated to the study of flags and their significance. The association surveyed its members in 2001, and the S.C. flag ended up 10th.

Whether the S.C. flag is the best or just somewhere in the Top 10, it is clearly one of the most popular designs among both internet users and scholars.

The flag’s simple, elegant design suggests there was a simple, elegant process that led to its design.

Not so.

Certainly, patriot Col. William Moultrie used a straightforward approach to the provincial flag used at Fort Sullivan during the Revolutionary War. He borrowed the background blue from his troops’ uniforms, and added a simple crescent in the upper left corner. The horns or points of the crescent faced upward, reflecting the emblem on the troops’ caps.

What the upturned crescent on the caps represented is another matter.

A heraldic symbol, denoting a second son? A crescent moon? A vestigial gorget? Some mash-up of all three? All are possibilities.

An enduring shape, the crescent is one of two symbols on the current S.C. flag, where it routinely — and, no doubt, inappropriately — is interpreted to be a waxing crescent moon.

The palmetto, which formed the log walls of Fort Moultrie against bombarding British warships, also quickly found itself incorporated in the South Carolina’s State Seal. And, in the decades that followed, the palmetto kept reappearing on flags, usually symbolizing S.C. resistance, whether in regard to nullification in the 1830s or the Mexican War.

As South Carolina began moving towards secession competing flags or banners featuring palmettos began appearing. Since there was no officially designated flag, anyone with an idea, access to fabric and a upholsterer or seamstress could produce one.

However, after the Ordinance of Secession passed Dec. 20, 1860, the Legislature set about adopting an official design for a state flag.

The Citadel’s ‘Big Red’ and the Civil War

Today, flag images either may be sewn or printed. However, early U.S. flags either were sewn or painted, or both.

Two sewn Civil War-era South Carolina flags embody the challenges inherent in depicting a palmetto solely with fabric. These are the Citadel’s “Big Red” Flag and the Palmetto Guard flag.

Big Red entered the history books Jan. 9, 1861, when cadets from The Citadel fired on a ship attempting to resupply Fort Sumter. They were flying a flag that featured an appliqued white palmetto and crescent on a “blood red” field.

A version of the flag eventually became the school’s spirit flag. Remarkably, in 2007, a flag matching the description of Big Red was located in an Iowa history museum. Research conducted by The Citadel concluded it was the actual flag flown on Morris Island in 1861.

Big Red is thought to have been made by Charleston flagmaker Hugh Vincent.

Vincent’s challenge was to portray a palmetto, a vertical design element on a horizontal field. This design constraint forced the tree to be squat.

Another challenge was how to depict individual leaves to make the palm canopy look like something other than a roundish meatball-on-a-post lump.

Vincent’s symmetrical graphic solution, with adroit use of negative space, is reminiscent of traditional floral Hawaiian quilts. It can be argued that the result does not look very much like a palmetto, but, to its credit, it also does not look like any tree other than a palmetto. It may, after a century and a half, be the best graphic representation of a palmetto to ever appear on a flag.

The Palmetto Guard flag was the first flag raised by Confederates over Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War. It consists of an appliqued palmetto and a painted red star.

The guard flag first gained fame when flown in New York harbor in November 1860. Subsequently, it returned to South Carolina where it came into the possession of Pvt. John S. Bird, who used it April 14, 1861, as the unofficial company flag of the Palmetto Guard.

‘A National Flag or Ensign’

Less than two weeks after the Big Red incident, on Jan. 21, a joint legislative committee presented a resolution mandating “ a National Flag or Ensign of South Carolina shall be white with green palmetto tree upright thereon; and the union blue, with a white increscent.”

The white increscent in the blue union — or upper left corner of the flag — was meant to be reminiscent of the flag flown at Fort Moultrie in 1776.

Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., legislator and editor of the Charleston Mercury, countered with a proposal that the flag “shall be blue with a white palmetto tree upright thereon, and a white crescent in the upper corner.”

But Rhett’s “simple and beautiful flag” was not immediately embraced by the Legislature.

One legislator favored a green palmetto, but that was opposed based on the fear that green fabric would fade to a “dirty yellow.” The Senate had other ideas, including a flag with a coat of arms, and a flag similar to the one proposed by the joint committee except that it would be a red flag, instead of white, and some brown was added.

Despite controversy, that design squeaked by on a 30-28 vote. Later that day, a motion to reconsider led to going back to a white tree on a blue flag and that recommendation was forwarded to a conference committee.

The committee must have been feeling either creative or rebellious for, on Jan. 26, they came back with “a golden palmetto upright upon a white oval in the centre thereof” on a blue flag. The white increscent persisted.

Someone using the pseudonym “Succession” wrote to the Charleston Daily Courier arguing either gold gilt or yellow fabric would prove unsatisfactory for practical reasons related to weathering.

On Jan. 28, the House respectfully requested concurrence of the Senate in altering the flag “to wit: dispense with the white medallion and golden palmetto, and in their place to insert a white palmetto.” There was no mention of a crescent or increscent.

The Senate concurred.

Rhett, whose version had prevailed, used his paper to clarify: “It now consists of a blue field with a white palmetto in the middle, upright. The white crescent in the upper flag staff corner remains as before, the horns pointing upward. This may be regarded as final.”

No definitive, officially adopted specifications for flag

While Rhett viewed his description as “final,” it didn’t resolve the design questions. Rhett was clear the horns of the crescent were to point upwards, Moultrie-style, while the conference committee design stipulated the horns face the flagstaff.

Throughout all the negotiations and color changes, the palmetto — whether green, white, or golden — was deemed essential. For 85 years, the palmetto tree had represented S.C. independence and defiance – one toast was “The Palmetto – Ominous to oppressors!”

In 1899, reflecting upon the Civil War, state Rep. Thomas Bacot of Charleston suggested the flag’s background be changed from blue to royal purple. Bacot argued the change represented the blue flag soaked

“in the red blood of the gallant South Carolinians.” The measure failed.

By 1910, concern had grown about various details of the flag, including the orientation of the crescent, the color of the flag, and the size and shape of the palmetto.

On Feb. 26, the General Assembly approved Act 406, reaffirming the actions of the 1861 General Assembly, declaring the flag “shall consist of blue with white crescent in the upper flagstaff corner, and white palmetto tree in the centre.” By deleting two letters, the left-pointing increscent simply became a crescent, liberated to point in virtually any direction.

Alexander Salley was the secretary of the Historical Commission, the body empowered by the General Assembly to resolve the issues. The color was the easy part — neither flashy or dull, not so dark as to appear black from a distance, but not royal blue either.

The crescent was harder.

Salley was contending with two contradictory historical precedents: the upward pointing horns featured on the caps of Moultrie’s troops and the 1861 General Assembly’s heraldic increscent with the horns pointing to the left, facing the flagstaff.

Apparently on his own authority, Salley rotated the crescent halfway between the two stated options, creating the familiar crescent-moon orientation, the moon that many think the crescent represents.

As to what the palmetto was or is supposed to look like, Salley corresponded with Charles S. Doggett, director of Clemson’s Textile Department, where the flags were made. While the exchanges resulted in flags being made, apparently no written descriptions survived or ever were adopted, setting either specifications or parameters for the palmetto tree.

As a result, there is apparently no definitive, officially adopted set of rules regarding the appearance of flag, save the original mandate that it be “blue with a white palmetto tree upright thereon, and a white crescent in the upper corner.”

Differing versions of flag sold by flagmakers

That simple description allows wide latitude in what the flag actually looks like and the variation can be seen in the versions currently offered for sale. That stands in sharp contrast with the exacting specifications for the U.S. flag, which includes 10 specific proportional measurements and stipulated colors.

One consequence of this relaxed approach to S.C. flag design is that there currently are several different versions of the state flag being sold by competing commercial manufacturers.

The S.C. State House Student Connection website features a version with a rambling palmetto sold by Flags Importer. This version has the most irregular tree canopy outline of any of the flags currently being sold. The lower portion of the trunk is featureless with straight sides and leads to a section of bootjacks.

The most common flag — and possibly the most popular — has a palmetto emerging from a small patch of ground with a tapered trunk and diagonal leaf scars — neither of which are characteristic of palmettos. No bootjacks are present. The canopy consists of 11 or 12 protrusions that have been compared to feathered wings or gloved hands. This flag is sold by Annin flagmakers.

In my opinion, the flag with the most accurately rendered palmetto is the version sold by U.S. Flagstore.

However, other versions exist.

But which is right?

I asked the S.C. Carolina Department of Archives and History. They sent me a packet dated June 8, 2016, with an explanatory paragraph. “It seems that you are correct in your hypothesis that there is no officially adopted prescription for how the Palmetto tree is to appear on the S.C. State Flag.”

Citing the 1861 and 1910 legislation, the state agency said: “No other specifications have been officially adopted.”

In an era of rigorous branding supervised by identity-obsessive marketers fiercely pursuing compliance with templates and specified pantone colors, it is refreshing and historically appropriate that South Carolina bestows upon its citizens — and flag manufacturers — the latitude to depict the state tree in whatever manner they choose so long as an upright white palmetto is in the center and that devilish “moon” is in the upper left.

As a result, some of versions of the palmetto have become so distorted that they no longer closely resemble the state tree. But that is OK. The iconic white palmetto and crescent resplendent on a blue background have taken on more meaning and more import than the flag itself — two paired symbols that instantly and unequivocally say South Carolina in a way that most other state flag elements never have.

Coasters, tote bags, soap dispensers, hip flasks, neckties, notebooks, aprons, mugs, actually just about anything can be ordered with a white palmetto and crescent. One online vendor, Zazzle, lists over 7,000 S.C. Palmetto gifts, although not all feature the palmetto and crescent.

Boasting a history dating to the dawn of our country, the S.C. flag paradoxically has transcended its deliberate ambiguity to become possibly the most recognizable of all state icons, far more identifiable than the tightly prescribed and obsessive offerings of other states.

SOURCES: supercompressor.com, Houston Post, nava.org, Wylma A. Wates’ “A Flag Worthy of Your State and People,” crwflags.com, scstatehouse.gov, civilwar.org, citadelhistory.org, scvcamp38.org, nps.gov, Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina at the Regular Session of 1910, usflag.org, flagsimporter.com, westword.com, annin.com, usflagstore.com, S.C. Department of Archives and History, zazzle.com

About the author

Jono Miller is a naturalist intrigued with the natural and cultural backstories of the Sabal palmetto, the tree South Carolinians call a palmetto, and Floridians call a cabbage palm. The column above is adapted from a draft chapter in his book about this resplendent tree.

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